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Its imported stars, the English actor Jonathan Pryce and the Filipino actress Lea Salonga, are playing roles that neglected Asian-American performers feel are rightfully theirs.
Its top ticket price of $100 is a new high, sprung by an English producer, if you please, on a recession-straitened American public.
More incendiary still is the musical's content. A loose adaptation of "Madama Butterfly" transplanted to the Vietnam War by French authors, the "Les Miserables" team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, "Miss Saigon" insists on revisiting the most calamitous and morally dubious military adventure in American history and, through an unfortunate accident of timing, arrives in New York even as the jingoistic celebrations of a successful American war are going full blast.
So take your rage with you to the theater, where "Miss Saigon" opened last night, and hold on tight. Then see just how long you can cling to the anger when confronted by the work itself. For all that seems galling about "Miss Saigon" -- and for all that is indeed simplistic, derivative and, at odd instances, laughable about it -- this musical is a gripping entertainment of the old school (specifically, the Rodgers and Hammerstein East-meets-West school of "South Pacific" and "The King and I").
Among other pleasures, it offers lush melodies, spectacular performances by Mr. Pryce, Miss Salonga and the American actor Hinton Battle, and a good cry. Nor are its achievements divorced from its traumatic subject, as cynics might suspect. Without imparting one fresh or daring thought about the Vietnam War, the show still manages to plunge the audience back into the quagmire of a generation ago, stirring up feelings of anguish and rage that run even deeper than the controversies that attended "Miss Saigon" before its curtain went up.
Challenged perhaps by the ill will that greeted their every move, the evening's creators, led by the director Nicholas Hytner, have given New York a far sharper version of "Miss Saigon" than the one originally staged in London. The much publicized (and inane) helicopter effect notwithstanding, this is the least spectacular and most intimate of the West End musicals.
The most stirring interludes feature two or three characters on an empty stage or in a bar girl's dingy hovel, and for once the production has been made leaner rather than fattened up for American consumption. (Though the theater is among the largest Broadway houses, it seems cozy next to the cavernous Drury Lane, where the show plays in London.)
If "Miss Saigon" is the most exciting of the so-called English musicals -- and I feel it is, easily -- that may be because it is the most American. It freely echoes Broadway classics, and some of its crucial personnel are Broadway hands: the co-lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., the choreographer Bob Avian, the orchestrator William D. Brohn.
Without two legendary American theatrical impresarios, David Belasco and Harold Prince, there would in fact be no "Miss Saigon." It was Belasco's turn-of-the-century dramatization of the Madame Butterfly story that inspired Puccini's opera, and it was Mr. Prince who, inspired by Brecht and the actor Joel Grey 25 years ago, created the demonic, symbolic Emcee of "Cabaret," a character that is unofficially recycled on this occasion in a role called the Engineer and played by Mr. Pryce.
These two influences are brilliantly fused here. Altered substantially but not beyond recognition, the basic "Butterfly" premise of an Asian woman who is seduced and abandoned by an American military man is affectingly rekindled in "Miss Saigon" by Mr. Schonberg's score and Miss Salonga's clarion, emotionally naked delivery of it.
Whenever that tale flirts with bathos, along comes the leering, creepy Mr. Pryce to jolt the evening back into the hellish, last-night-of-the-world atmosphere that is as fitting for the fall of Saigon as it was for the Weimar Berlin of "Cabaret."
The theatrical poles of "Miss Saigon" represented by its two stars are equally powerful. Miss Salonga, whose performance has grown enormously since crossing the Atlantic, has the audience all but worshiping her from her first appearance as Kim, an open-faced 17-year-old waif from the blasted Vietnamese countryside who is reduced to working as a prostitute in Saigon.
As her romance with an American marine, Chris (Willy Falk), blossoms "South Pacific"-style in a progression of haunting saxophone-flecked ballads in Act I, the actress keeps sentimentality at bay by slowly revealing the steely determination beneath the gorgeous voice, radiant girlish features and virginal white gown.
Once Chris and his fellow Americans have fled her and her country, the determination transmutes into courage, and the passages in which Kim sacrifices herself for the welfare of her tiny child, no matter how hokey, are irresistibly moving because Miss Salonga's purity of expression, backed up by the most elemental music and lyrics, simply won't let them be otherwise.
Mr. Pryce, a great character actor whose nasty streak has been apparent since his memorable Broadway debut in Trevor Griffiths's "Comedians" 15 years ago, makes disingenuousness as electrifying as Miss Salonga's ingenuousness.
The Engineer is a fixer, profiteer and survivor who can outlast Uncle Sam and Uncle Ho: a pimp, a sewer rat, a hustler of no fixed morality, sexuality, race, nationality or language.
Wearing wide-lapelled jackets and bell bottoms of garish color, he is the epitome of sleaze, forever swiveling his hips, flashing a sloppy tongue and fluttering his grasping fingers in the direction of someone's dollar bills or sex organs. With his high-domed forehead and ghoulish eyes, Mr. Pryce is also a specter of doom, and he manages to turn a knee-jerk number indicting the greedy "American Dream" into a show-stopper with the sheer force of his own witty malice.
As choreographed by Mr. Avian in demented parody of an old-fashioned Broadway song-and-dance turn, "The American Dream" looks like the Fellini-esque "Loveland" sequence in the 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies," and no wonder, given the song's imitation Sondheim lyrics and the fact that Mr. Avian was Michael Bennett's associate choreographer on "Follies."
Among the other old favorites in "Miss Saigon" are a balcony scene out of "West Side Story," a departing refugees scene out of "Fiddler on the Roof," an Act II song for Mr. Pryce that recalls Fagin's equivalent solo in "Oliver!" and some dancing North Vietnamese who seem a cross between the Peronists in "Evita" and the ritualistic Japanese dancers of "Pacific Overtures."
It is only when "Miss Saigon" imitates West End musicals of the 1980's, however, that it goes seriously astray. The helicopter stunt, which will most impress devotees of sub-Disney theme parks, is presented out of historical sequence in an Act II flashback, for no good reason other than to throw Andrew Lloyd Webber fans a pseudo-chandelier or levitating tire.
A neon-drenched Bangkok nightlife spectacle in the same act is a grim reminder of the ill-fated "Chess." Of all the failings of modern British musicals, the most severe has been their creators' utter bewilderment about what happens between men and women emotionally, psychologically and sexually.
"Miss Saigon" is not immune to this syndrome, either, and it shows up most embarrassingly in the lyrics characterizing Chris's stateside wife, who, despite a game portrayal by Liz Callaway, induces audience snickers and giggles in her big Act II solo. Chris himself is nearly as faceless, and Mr. Falk, a performer with a strong pop voice and a Ken doll's personality, does nothing to turn up the hero's heat.
If anything, "Miss Saigon" would be stronger if Mr. Battle, who plays Chris's best friend, had been cast instead as Kim's lover. Mr. Battle's grit and passion are far more redolent of the marines who fought in Vietnam than Mr. Falk's blandness, and his one brief encounter with Miss Salonga has more bite than any of her scenes with her paramour.
Mr. Battle, who has heretofore been better known as a dancer than a singer, also rescues the sanctimonious opening anthem of Act II -- a canned plea for homeless Amerasian children -- with a gospel delivery so blistering and committed that he overpowers an onslaught of cliched lyrics, film clips and a large backup choir.
With the aid of his designers, especially the lighting designer David Hersey, who uses John Napier's fabric-dominated sets as a floating canvas, Mr. Hytner usually keeps the staging simple. An opening "Apocalypse Now" sunrise that bleeds into a hazy panorama of a Saigon morning is as delicate as an Oriental print, and the Act I climax, in which boat people set off for points unknown, is stunning because it relies on such primal elements as an outstretched helping hand and the slow exit by the characters to the rear of a deep, darkened stage stripped of most scenery.
To be sure, the hallucinatory view of Vietnam familiar from the films of Oliver Stone, the journalism of Michael Herr and the fiction of Robert Stone, among many others, is beyond Mr. Hytner's mission, if not his considerable abilities, just as any thoughtful analysis of the war is beyond the libretto.
The text of "Miss Saigon," second in naivete only to "Nixon in China," says merely that the North Vietnamese were villains and that the Americans were misguided, bungling do-gooders. Facts and haircuts are fudged, the corrupt South Vietnamese regime is invisible and any references to war atrocities are generalized into meaninglessness.
Yet the text is not the sum of a theatrical experience, and however sanitizing the words and corny the drama of "Miss Saigon," the real impact of the musical goes well beyond any literal reading. America's abandonment of its own ideals and finally of Vietnam itself is there to be found in the wrenching story of a marine's desertion of a Vietnamese woman and her son.
The evening's far-from-happy closing tableau -- of spilled Vietnamese blood and an American soldier who bears at least some responsibility for the carnage -- hardly whitewashes the United States involvement in Southeast Asia.
"Miss Saigon" is escapist entertainment in style and in the sense that finally it even makes one forget about all the hype and protests that greeted its arrival. But this musical is more than that, too, because the one thing it will not allow an American audience to escape is the lost war that, like its tragic heroine, even now defiantly refuses to be left behind.
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg; lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil; adapted from original French lyrics by Mr. Boublil; additional material by Mr. Maltby; directed by Nicholas Hytner; orchestrations by William D. Brohn; musical supervision, David Caddick and Robert Billig; sets by John Napier; lighting by David Hersey; costumes by Andreane Neofitou and Suzy Benzinger; sound by Andrew Bruce; musical staging by Bob Avian.
Presented by Cameron Mackintosh.
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