News Column

Hit or'Miss' Paramount's 'Miss Saigon' powerful if problematic

November 8, 2013


The Paramount Theatre's take on the blockbuster musical "Miss Saigon" is filled with plenty of passion, emotion and theatrical artistry -- guaranteeing audiences a good dramatic time with a high likelihood of clutching a tear-stained hankie or two by the tragic ending.

The dramatic stakes are certainly raised in this 1989 updating of Puccini's 1904 opera "Madama Butterfly." That's because "Les Miserables" creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, along with American lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., refashioned the basic story of an American soldier abandoning his Asian bride by relocating it to the Vietnam War era.

But let me temper that praise by pointing out that as a writer with some Asian heritage, I've had issues with "Miss Saigon" through the years. Though the authors have made the central lovers much more sympathetic and go-getting than their operatic predecessors, the work still perpetuates the Western stereotype that an Asian woman will sacrifice her love and life for an unworthy white man.

Those issues aside (on top of a potentially confusing disjointed narrative), the Paramount Theatre production of "Miss Saigon," helmed by director Jim Corti, is a strong and satisfying one for lovers of big British blockbuster musicals from the 1980s -- even without that iconic and expensive Act II helicopter set piece that landed and took off from the stage in the original production.

Corti's staging approach is deceptively simple, with scenes playing in front of Vietnam War-era photos by projection designer Mike Tutaj that are bordered by an oversize and skewed bamboo framework by set designer Linda Buchanan. These bamboo frames then move in Act II to become towering skeletal platforms for the powerful and unsettling "Fall of Saigon" flashback sequence. They also glow in multicolored gaudiness courtesy of lighting designer Jesse Klug to show the fleshpot Thai bars and brothels of 1970s Bangkok.

Corti cast his "Miss Saigon" with a visually appealing and vocally strong ensemble, who do justice to the pop and power ballad- heavy score (even if it isn't on the level of Boublil and Schonberg's previous work on "Les Miserables").

As Kim, the show's title heroine, Shawna Haeji Shin masterfully gets across her character's initial innocence and later single- minded determination to do what's best for her son, the child she bore after the man she loved left Saigon. As her American soldier lover, Chris, Brandon Moorhead is good at playing a mixed-up young man thrust into a war that he can't fully comprehend -- though I would have liked more inner turmoil from him in Act II when confronted with the news that he has a son.

Paramount's "Miss Saigon" is particularly blessed to have Joseph Anthony Foronda returning to his award-winning role of "The Engineer," which he previously played on tour and in 2009 at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. Foronda easily steals attention away from everyone else onstage as the money-hungry pimp, and Corti grants him a solo turn with lots of Bob Fosse-style limberness and Al Jolson panache for the typically big Act II production number "The American Dream."

There's also good supporting work from the likes of Elliot Greer as the U.S. embassy employee John (particularly when he shows off his vocal range in the Act II opener "Bui-Doi"), W. Blaine Brown as the communist official Thuy and Emilie Lynn as Chris' American wife, Ellen.

Though there is a lot to admire in Paramount's "Miss Saigon," some things just don't work for me; I particularly didn't buy Corti's final tableau. But in the end, the show delivers the drama you expect from "Miss Saigon."

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