Jill Weinlein, Chief Los Angeles Critic
Covering the red carpet on the Opening Night of Miss Saigon at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, I was starstruck to see British actor Greg Ellis walk down the carpet. He performed in the original Miss Saigon when it premiered in the West End at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1989. The show was such a success, that it stayed in London for 10 years. It also opened on Broadway in 1991 with over 4,000 performances. During this time there was a lot of controversy as the show’s creators exposed the ugliness, deception, misplaced patriotism, as well as the idealism and courage of the Vietnamese during and after the Vietnam War.
The creation of Miss Saigon started as composer Claude-Michel Schönberg noticed a photo of young Vietnamese girl at the airport facing her mother. She was being sent to the United States to live a better life with her American G.I. birth father. The photo touched him about the obligation and responsibility Americans have to the Vietnamese. They became refugees willing do anything to reach America for a better life.
Together with Alain Boublil, and lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., they created a show reminiscent in emotional energy, forbidden love, death and rock opera sounds of “Les Misérables,” that these creators opened earlier in 1985.
Cameron Mackintosh’s Broadway revival of “Miss Saigon” opened on Thursday, July 19 at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. This version is especially poignant as Americans daily read and watch the political refugee crisis, as desperate people flee violence in Central America and other countries under our current administration.
There are 28 songs led by Will Curry taking us on the journey of sweet and innocent Kim (performed by Emily Bautista who also played the role on Broadway), whose family was “blasted away” during the Vietnam war and is now a teenage orphan being lured into the Dreamland brothel.
Terrified Kim has electrifying chemistry with American G.I. Chris (Anthony Festa). He wins her heart, yet later breaks it in two. Emily Bauista gives the audience a gut-wrenching performance belting out her golden voice to the rafters of the theatre, especially during one of the most famous songs “I’d Give My Life for You.” Many of her songs are sung with her young American-Vietnamese son Tam, (Adalynn Ng) clutched in her arms.
Another star of this production is “The Engineer” a sleazy hustler and owner of “Dreamland" (Red Concepción also played this role on the UK Tour). He reminds me of “The Master of The House” in Les Misérables, as he has the audience on the edge of their seats applauding all the way through the curtain call, especially in the number “The American Dream” offering a Cabaret style performance.
Mick Potters spectacular sets change throughout the show, opening with a multi-level Dreamland brothel in Saigon in April 1975. This “recreation area” for American marines has the entire cast onstage bumping and grinding while “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” are displayed in the opening song “The Heat is One.”
Costume designer Andreane Neofitou must have had a great time finding scantily clad pieces for the girls, and the purple pants for "The Engineer."
When the set changes to the crowded Ho Chi Minh City in 1978, we watch the love affair of Kim and Chris making plans to start a new life in America. A little of the Vietnamese tradition shines through with shoes removed before entering an indoor room, incense burning, and preparations for marriage. Kim longs for a place where she doesn’t have to dance, and Chris is her knight to take her away. Clever lines in the show are “A guy like him (Chris) is a king, they all want him to pull a string.”
A love triangle evolves as Kim’s cousin Thuy (handsome Jinwoo Jung) enters the scene. We learn Kim's parents betrothed them at a young age. He currently is an officer in the Communist Vietnamese government and Kim must do the unthinkable to try to achieve her dream.
Another highlight in this show is “The Morning of the Dragon” number as five people manipulate a long red dragon blowing steam from its nostrils, while choreographer Geoffrey Garratt has masked Uncle Sam dancers spinning ribbons and flipping onstage.
After intermission the set changes to the “Bui Doi” Foundation in Atlanta deciding what to do with all of the American-Vietnamese refugee children. G.I. John (strong performance by J. Daughtry) starts a video to show the delegation (and audience) about the American-Vietnamese children in orphanages and detention centers, “Conceived in hell, they are the living reminder of what we failed to do.” These children have a “secret they can’t hide, it’s printed on their face.” They are living in “a camp for children whose crime was being born - we owe them fathers….they are all our children too.”
Kim’s flash back (Fall of Saigon 1975) is another dramatic scene at the American Embassy, as we watch Chris frantically search for Kim standing behind a tall chain link fence with razor wire. She is among the desperate people begging to leave on the last helicopter to America, before the city fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops. Chris and other Americans board a life-size helicopter as it comes down onto a rooftop. Lighting designer Bruno Poet enhances this scene to appear as if the helicopter takes off and flies over the audiences heads. The faces of desperate Vietnamese losing hope of escaping, will stay in my soul for quite some time.
The last scene is the seedy streets of Bangkok, Thailand in 1978, where Vietnamese refugees are treated as “rats in the streets.” This tragic ending leaves everyone in the audience in tears.
Other cast members include Christine Bunuan, Devin Archer, Alexander Aguilar, Eric Badiqué, Brandon Block, Eymard Cabling, Joven Calloway, Rae Leigh Case, Kai An Chee, Julie Eicher, Matthew Dailey, Tyler Dunn, Noah Gouldsmith, Haven Je, Adam Kaokept, David Kaverman, McKinley Knuckle, Madoka Koguchi, Nancy Lam, Brian Shimasaki Liebson, Garrick Macatangay, Jonelle Margallo, Fin Moulding, Kevin Murakami, Adalynn Ng, Jackie Nguyen, Matthew Overberg, Emilio Ramos, Adam Roberts, Michael Russell, Julius Sermonia, Emily Stillings, Tiffany Toh, Nicholas Walters, and Anna-Lee Wright. The role of Tam is played by Tyler Dunn, Haven Je, Fin Moulding and Adalynn Ng.
There were approximately 800,000 people that left Vietnam starting in 1975, many of the refugees failed to survive the passage, facing danger from pirates, over-crowded boats, and storms. Survivors first settled in Southeast Asian countries - Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Some stayed, while others waited patiently to live their dream in America.
The performance schedule for Miss Saigon is Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 1pm & 6:30pm.
Miss Saigon is recommended for ages 12 and up. Children under 5 will not be admitted to the theatre, because the show contains some sexual scenes and language which may not be suitable for younger audience members. This production includes gun shots and pyrotechnics.
Individual tickets for Miss Saigon start at $49. Prices are subject to change without notice.
Hollywood Pantages Theatre - 6233 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Phone (323)468-1770. Website - https://www.hollywoodpantages.com.