Since its opening in 1989, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s tragic musical, Miss Saigon, has been attracting a strong mixture of both criticism and praise. The musical, based loosely on the opera Madame Butterfly, and onstage in a revamped production at DPAC, may still have some elements some viewers find troubling. However, the beautiful thing about theatre is that viewers can see what they choose to see, and what unfolds in this production is not a story of weakness, as it is often billed, but a story about strength and courage, though they might not always look the way one imagines.
The production begins by introducing the audience to beautiful Kim (Emily Bautista). At only seventeen, she has lost her parents in the midst of the Vietnam war and, with no options before her, has just started work at a brothel, run by a man known as The Engineer, portrayed at the opening night performance by Eymard Cabling. Kim’s life changes, she thinks for the better, when she meets Chris (Anthony Festa), a solider who takes to her instantly and seems to find solace in the lost states that they both share.
While their connection is as much romantic as it is heart-wrenching, the horrors of life in a brothel are not cast to the wayside in favor of entertainment. Gigi and Kim, both workers at the brothel, one hardened and one new, respectively, describe their struggle and their dreams in the still-poignant “The Movie in my Mind.” Kai An Chee's Gigi, though she doesn’t prove to be a major character, gives her all in this number, belting out her soulful, sorrowful lyrics with raw, gripping, emotional power. Bautista ultimately joins her in this song, conveying the same longing and grit behind the well-written lyrics.
The music will remain haunting and beautiful throughout. It is, in fact, one of the show’s greatest strengths. And, despite what some critics may say, another strength is the real, raw bond that forms between Kim and Chris. Both performers give just the right touches of vulnerability to make the relationships between these two characters understandable, if not ideal. While some look at their relationship as that of a victim and victor, what is really seen here is two people in a desperate place, desperately seeking a connection.
In fact, that theme- the desperate searching for connection, for more- can be found in many of the show’s characters and in its overall themes. While the engineer can be a hard character to love or care about, and while his “funny” songs and antics look quite different in a (slightly more enlightened) 2019 than they did when the original show premiered, he too is more of a real, fleshed-out character than he is often given credit for being.
Like the others in the cast, he longs for more, for a way out, for a chance. His downfall is that he will step on anyone he needs to in order to gain his desires. While some see the character as problematic, this somewhat-updated version of the story holds him up as a warning, a parody of sorts of what “The American Dream” can become if we allow it to.
Understudy Cabling does a superior job of tackling the complexities of this oft-misunderstood character, one that should make viewers question the very nature of a “villain” and if such a thing really exists at all. For, as hard as it may be for some modern viewers to cop to, The Engineer is also trying to live out the “movie in his mind,” though his orchestrations may be more sinister and desperate than those of the other characters in the play.
As the complex characters play out their roles on stage, the action quickly jumps to several years in the future. What follows in the “future scenes” is, suffice it to say, powerful and honest, pointing to the true devastation of war and shining a too-bright light on a difficult point in history. To reveal too much would be to give away the powerful unfolding of this story.
In fact, the whole second act, if discussed too deeply, is a bit of a spoiler. But, what can be said is that the central character, Kim, makes some tough choices in the name of love, choices that should hearken to all viewers to ask themselves what love actually means, what it truly means to sell oneself, and the lengths we are willing to go to for something we believe in, no matter how flawed.
And, while many have looked on the unfolding of the story as a sign of Kim’s weakness or even as a white-washing of sorts, it’s easily argued that this is a misinterpretation of a beautiful story, one told even more powerfully in DPAC’s newer, braver reendition. Kim, at least in this production, never sees herself as a victim, therein giving the character and her choices power. And, thus, what many have deemed as problematic in her actions, in the script itself, becomes not a celebration of western idealization, but a sad premonition about what it can lead to.
When looked at in this way, DPAC’s production is brazen, timely, and makes the story even more amazing than it has ever been thought of before. Perhaps it’s time for people not to look at this story for what they think it promotes, but instead, to turn their eyes to its warnings, its cautions, and its unmistakable portrayal of human longing and the error that it can lead to, regardless of culture, class, or opportunity.
Director Laurence Connor certainly seems to have understood this oft-misunderstood message, as does the overall presentation, complete with a diverse cast, that DPAC has gifted the Triangle with. The question is whether or not the audience will embrace its true message and beauty. That decision, of course, lies with the viewer. Of course in order to form an opinion, one must first see this important production, something everyone is urged to do, regardless of what may be taken away from it.
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