Wednesday, 13 March 2019 17:51

Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ is a remarkable journey through war and love

Written by  Dana Casadei
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"Miss Saigon" at Wharton Center. "Miss Saigon" at Wharton Center. Courtesy Photo

Boy meets girl, girl meets boy, they fall in love and go on to live happily ever after. End of story, right?

Unfortunately, love is very rarely that simple. Especially for Chris (Anthony Festa) and Kim (Emily Bautista) in Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg classic Miss Saigon. (Said duo are also the creators behind Les Misérables, so get ready for very little actual dialogue — most of the show is sung — and a lot of songs that are going to make you feel a lot of feelings.)

Right from the get-go, audiences are dropped into the middle of Vietnam circa 1975, right around the end of the war, in this Laurence Connor directed production, with musical staging and choreography by Bob Avian.

The show wastes no time in its pacing and we’re quickly introduced to American G.I. Chris and Kim, a young Vietnamese teenager working in a bar — one that sells much more than just alcohol — run by the Engineer (Red Concepción).

Thankfully, Festa and Bautista’s chemistry oozes off the stage as soon as they meet. If not for that, the whole story wouldn’t feel as real and raw as it does. There’s white-hot passion between the duo, who quickly fall in love, and it’s felt immediately.

Speaking of Festa and Bautista, not only is their chemistry fantastic, but their harmonies are breathtaking, whether they are singing a ballad or one of the few more upbeat numbers. They can shine together, but they are also stars on their own. Festa has one of those voices that hits every single corner of that theater, especially during Act I’s “Why God Why?” Just you wait for his crescendo at the end of that number — you’ll be grateful the show has only just begun.

Then there’s Bautista, who was the understudy of the role during its 2017 Broadway revival before joining the tour. Much like Festa, her voice is powerful and at times heart-wrenching, but it’s her acting that takes it all to the next level. The anguish that seems to haunt her during the show makes it impossible to take your eyes off her. Someone just give her a hug, please and thanks.

Anyway, back to the plot.

As Saigon falls apart around them, Chris and Kim are sadly — albeit a little predictably — torn apart. Without giving too much away, what follows adds even more complexity to their already complicated relationship and years go by with them both wondering if they’ll ever see each other again.

Needless to say from the brief synopsis, there is a lot happening in Miss Saigon, and I’d be lying if I said it never feels rushed at times. More often than not, there isn't enough time to process one plot point fully before another is being thrown at you, but maybe that’s how it should feel given the show’s context around the Vietnam War.

War is often hectic and intense, and comes at you hard and fast, leaving people wondering what exactly will happen next, much like Miss Saigon. This feeling of dread and loss is truly brought to life thanks to Bruno Poet’s lighting design, along with Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s scenic design. Everything is dark and gritty, and even when the show is in a place filled with bright, neon lights, there’s still a sadness to it, like there’s a layer of gloom waiting to overtake the stage at any second.

This production isn’t afraid to shy away from the pain that war brings.

During a trio of songs during Act II, starting with “Room 317,” the show emphasises that point with an exclamation point. All the songs are a gut-punch, but it’s the middle song, “Maybe,” sung by Ellen (Stacie Bono) that ultimately breaks your heart. You’re already a little bruised from watching the song prior, but then “Maybe” happens and you’re left trying to hold back tears.

If you don’t feel something, anything, during those three songs, you may want to check your heart is still beating.

While a lot of this show falls under a more somber tone — it is about war after all — there’s also Concepción as the Engineer, bringing with him the show’s few comedic beats. At one point during a solo in Act II, he looks at the audience and says, “Wasn’t that fabulous?” Even though he was in character, he might as well have been talking about himself. Concepción gets to play the Engineer at a constant 11, which is taken to about a 15 during “The American Dream.” Plus, he wears some pretty flamboyant blazers along the way.

The clothes as a whole in Miss Saigon are a sight to behold. With design by Adrian Vaux and Andreane Neofitou, they range from bell bottoms in a variety of colors to perfectly tailored uniforms for the men, with the women donning dresses that couldn’t feel more right for the characters.

That’s much like the love Chris and Kim have for each other, which couldn’t feel more right. But, despite the frustration and sadness of watching all they go through, seeing a story of boy and girl passing go and heading straight to happily ever just wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as this captivating musical is to watch. Or as much fun to listen to.

Miss Saigon
Wharton Center
March 12-17
whartoncenter.com

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