At the Opera House, ‘Miss Saigon’ shows its age
It’s fitting that the whir and rumble of helicopter blades is the first sound we hear as “Miss Saigon’’ prepares to get underway at the Citizens Bank Opera House.
Why fitting? Partly because a later, dramatic appearance by a mammoth chopper represents the centerpiece of this musical about an ill-fated romance in the waning days of the Vietnam War between an American soldier named Chris (Anthony Festa) and a 17-year-old South Vietnamese orphan named Kim (Myra Molloy). They meet when Kim is working in a seedy Saigon bar that doubles as a brothel, having been lured there by the bar’s Mephistophelian operator and pimp, known as The Engineer (Red Concepción).
But that noisy preamble to “Miss Saigon’’ is also fitting because it underscores a weakness of this 1991 musical: That it prizes spectacle and technology and set design over story and heart and depth, that aforementioned romance notwithstanding.
The result is a hollowness at the center of the show, imposing limits on our emotional engagement that cannot be overcome by the fever pitch at which this production unfolds, by that formidable whirlybird, or by the generally fine performances by the large cast, who do their best to add dimension to what are mostly stick figures.
Especially impressive is Molloy, a newly minted Berklee College of Music graduate who delivers a first-rate portrayal of Kim, even though the character’s arc ranges from desperation to desolation, and not much further, as she tries to reconnect with Chris after the war. (Molloy is alternating in the role with Acton native Emily Bautista.) Festa is fine as Chris, though you feel more sympathy for the actor than you do for the character as he enacts the musical’s cliched denouement. J. Daughtry is a definite asset as John, a loyal friend to Chris both in Vietnam and stateside, while Stacie Bono does what she can with the underwritten role of Ellen, Chris’s wife.
A sung-through musical based on Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly’’ that is directed by Laurence Connor, “Miss Saigon’’ follows by less than a month a production by Boston’s Company One Theatre of “Vietgone.’’ Written by Qui Nguyen, “Vietgone’’ told the story (based on the experiences of his own parents) of Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the United States after the war. Not the most propitious timing for “Miss Saigon,’’ which has been dogged by questions about cultural authenticity from its start nearly three decades ago.
Back then, Jonathan Pryce, who is Caucasian, was cast as the French-Vietnamese Engineer, who schemes his way through “Miss Saigon,’’ intent on bringing his wiles to the United States. Concepción brings a combination of malevolent gusto and comic invention to the role, but he can’t transcend the character’s cardboard cynicism, exemplified in The Engineer’s big number: a ham-handed Act 2 ode to opportunism called “The American Dream’’ that made me long for the knife-edged nuance of Kander & Ebb.
In the years since its 1991 Broadway debut, criticism has only intensified of the stereotyped depictions in “Miss Saigon’’ of the Vietnamese characters, especially the women, by the songwriting team (lyricists Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg). With concerns about cultural appropriation and authentic representation especially acute today, it remains problematic, at a minimum, that the Vietnamese characters in “Miss Saigon’’ tend to be either venal, vicious, or victimized — although Kim does take fierce action against a threat to her young son posed by Thuy (a forceful Jinwoo Jung), her one-time betrothed turned Communist officer.
“Miss Saigon’’ feels dated for another reason that relates to the gigantism endemic to the Cameron Mackintosh industrial complex of which it is a part. The British producer dominated Broadway in the 1980s and 1990s with spectacle-driven blockbuster musicals that relied on the wow factor, including “Les Miserables’’ (that turntable!), “The Phantom of the Opera’’ (that plummeting chandelier!), and “Miss Saigon’’ (that chopper!).
But we are now in a time when theater audiences enthusiastically embrace musicals suffused with an indie vibe and an intimate, idiosyncratic story to tell, such as Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown’’ (which won the 2019 Tony Award for best musical last week); “The Band’s Visit’’ (the 2018 Tony winner); “Dear Evan Hansen’’ (2017’s winner); and “Fun Home’’ (2015’s winner). By comparison with those fleet-footed contemporary shows, “Miss Saigon’’ is weighed down by grandiosity — so much so that it never quite achieves liftoff.
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil, with additional lyrics by Michael Mahler. Directed by Laurence Connor. Musical staging and choreography by Bob Avian with additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, through June 30. Tickets start at $44.50, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com