Despite the reality that “Miss Saigon” is nearly three decades old, the timeless love story now playing at the Kennedy Center still resonates with today’s news and tugs on heartstrings as well.
The new production of the 1989 play, set at the end of the Vietnam War. is nothing short of spectacular, and in the style of producer Cameron Mackintosh (“Les Miserables”) “Miss Saigon” has soaring songs and dazzling sets, not to ignore the stunning choreography.
At the core of the musical, originally produced in French by creators Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, is a love story set in a time of war.
Kim (Emily Bautista) is a teenage girl orphaned by the Vietnam War and recruited into the sex market by an unscrupulous character knows as The Engineer (Red Concepción). Catering to the lonely and randy Marines deployed in what was then Saigon, The Engineer found a robust business and displayed Kim as a fresh, young princess worthy of a high price.
Chris (Anthony Festa) and John (J. Daughtry) find themselves fighting over Kim, who ultimately beds with Chris. As two very young people, Chris and Kim fall in love and get married in a traditional Vietnamese ceremony.
But of course, as history tells, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975 and Chris and Kim were separated when troops were pulled out from the Southeast Asian country, which went through a reunification during the next three years.
Kim spends the next years dreaming of going to the United States to be reunited with Chris, but fiancé, Thuy (Jinwoo Jung) through an arranged marriage is also searching for her to make good on their parents’ wishes.
What follows is a tragic tale, woven together by big show tunes like “The Movie in My Mind,” and “Last Night of the World,”
Act II delivers the most memorable songs of the nearly 3-hour play, opening with John’s mournful solo dedicated to the women left in Vietnam, and the children American soldiers fathered who remained in the now-Communist nation, the Bui Doi.
In compensation for the abandonment of the children, John leads a foundation created to locate and atone for the children left behind. He finds out through the organization’s research, that Chris, now married to Ellen (Stacie Bono), who knows nothing about the affair between her husband and Kim, has a son.
The rest is a classic tragic love story.
“Well, I knew it would be tragic, but I could not figure out who it would be. The writing was that good!” said Kevin Pinckney, principal singer with the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., and a founding chorister for Heritage Signature Chorale, now in its 19th season.
“The voices were great and when the duets and quartets began, the interplay of the voices sold the story,” he added.
Besides the talent in this large cast production, the set served up some over-the-top special effects, especially the jaw-dropping scene where Americans were evacuated from the embassy in the fall of Saigon, by a realistic looking and sounding helicopter.
“The special effects of the helicopter landing was epic!” Pinckney said. “Was it a hologram or was it going to land in the audience?”
Another show-stealer was The Engineer’s big number, “American Dream,” where a glittering Cadillac emerges from the back, brimming with blonde showgirls while tuxedo-clad dancing men kick and shimmy on the sides, all contributing to the most memorable song in the show.
On all counts, “Miss Saigon” leaves the audience riveted, entertained, awed and moved to tears in this new revival of a historic musical that broke theater records when it first came to Broadway in 1991 from its record-breaking run in the U.K.
“It’s hard to believe that it has been over 27 years since ‘Miss Saigon’ first opened in North America but, if anything, the tragic love story at the heart of the show has become even more relevant today with innocent people being torn apart by war all over the world,” Mackintosh said. “This brilliant new production, directed by Laurence Connor and featuring the original dazzling choreography by Bob Avian, takes a grittier, more realistic approach that magnifies the power and epic sweep of Boublil and Schönberg’s tremendous score.
“Of all my productions, despite its popularity, ‘Miss Saigon’ is the one that the public has had the least chance to see as it requires such a huge international cast of Asian and Western performers and a vast array of visually stunning sets,” he said. “Now, for the first time in 17 years, as it continues to wow audiences in major cities around the world, theatergoers across America will be able to see one of the most spectacular musicals ever written in all its glory, in a new production that critics in London and on Broadway have embraced.”
“Miss Saigon” plays at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through Jan. 13. For tickets and show times, go to kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.