"Miss Saigon" at the IU Auditorium is a big boisterous, bawdy, dramatic, funny, tender and even occasionally thought provoking musical. It comes in a superior production with a cast of strong singing actors, great sets, lighting, effects and direction.
The musical is from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg, the team that produced "Les Miserables." Perhaps it took a French team to be able to look hard, but from a distance at the American debacle in Viet Nam and some of its legacy for the men who fought there, the women they met and the children they left.
"Rent" at the Auditorium earlier this year drew on the opera "La Boheme." "Miss Saigon" echoes another opera, "Madama Butterfly." Again, an American soldier is involved with an Oriental woman and leaves only to learn later that he has fathered a son. But, "Miss Saigon" is a more passionate, much, much grittier story. Saigon in the midst of the losing American efforts in 1975 is far from the mannerly Japan of Rossini’s story.
Miss Saigon is a bargirl, Kim, was played on Tuesday with steady pathos by Jennifer Paz. Alan Gillespie as her enamored soldier Chris had just the right sort of All-American Boy look. Wallace Smith was ever supportive as Chris’s friend, John
One of the main characters in "Miss Saigon" is a facile hustler called the Engineer. The Engineer runs a bar, sells bogus merchandise, pimps and hustles. He’s also a bitter commentator on the action. In the hands of Jon Jon Briones the Engineer was a thorough slime, but a somehow–through the sheer force of his energy–an endearing one. Imagine an extra-audacious Sammy Davis, Junior, crossed with Chuck Berry and you’ll have a good fix on the character.
In the opera "Madama Butterfly" the American soldier rather callously leaves his Butterfly, but in Boublil and Schoenberg’s musical, Chris and Miss Saigon are ruthlessly separated in the chaos of the American’s pullout from Saigon. The effects dramatizing the last helicopter are pretty spectacular. The whole IU Auditorium vibrates with the thunder of its sound and the stereo effect left me turning around to see it depart.
The general feel of the music in "Miss Saigon" is of large, sustained, insistent fervor. There are spots where the action lags, the thin line of a song hangs on too long and a lyric’s rhymes left me idly guessing at what word would end the next line. But, and this is a large "but," the action always picked up. The overall quality and energy of the cast in a show that is always moving and a really visually striking production were always strongly present.
In the final scenes of "Miss Saigon," Chris is now married with a wife, Ellen, sympathetically and passionately played by Rachel Kopf. He learns that Kim is still alive and he has a son, Tam, played by five-year-old Jonathan Wade. The tragedy is inexorable and plays out
The opening night audience gave the hard working cast a standing ovation.
"Miss Saigon" plays each evening this week with a two o’clock matinee and an eight o’clock evening show on both Saturday and Sunday at the IU Auditorium