Aug. 31--Have you seen "Mess Saigon?"
No, not the musical "Miss Saigon," which plays at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts from Oct. 8 to Oct. 13, but the messy controversy that has swirled around the show each of the three times it has played in the Twin Cities.
A Broadway smash that ran for 10 years, "Miss Saigon" played in Minneapolis theaters in 1994 and 2004. An updating of the "Madame Butterfly" story, it takes place as the U.S. is about to withdraw from Vietnam and a soldier named Chris, whose affair with a bargirl named Kim has resulted in her pregnancy, leaves with a promise to return.
"Miss Saigon" is a huge spectacle, with songs by the team behind "Les Miserables." But don't expect Mu Performing Arts artistic director Randy Reyes to line up for tickets. He has quite a few objections to the musical:
"There is the over-sexualization of Asian women, the narrative of the Asian woman killing herself for a white man, the general romanticization of human trafficking, the idea of an adoption because the United States is supposedly the best place for an Asian-American child to grow up, and all of the ideas that come along with colonialism and privilege," said Reyes, a Filipino-American.
Reyes can envision script changes that would address those issues, much like playwright David Henry Hwang's recent revision to make the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song" more in keeping with the times.
As it stands, Reyes doesn't think "Miss Saigon" should be performed. At all.
"The show is hurtful to our community, living day-to-day as Asian-Americans," Reyes said. "If it was set on a plantation, and there was a black slave woman who fell in love with her white slave owner and pined for him and then killed herself for him, the African-American community would be up in arms. People would think more than twice about producing that show. So why is it OK in an Asian-American context?"
Reyes hasn't always felt that way.
As a student, he said, he saw "Miss Saigon" in London and "loved it."
"I thought it was great," he said. "It wasn't until later that I thought more about my responsibility to the community, that I thought, 'Wow. That is not a good message to show the world.' "
The theatricality that initially dazzled Reyes is a big reason "Miss Saigon" keeps returning.
"There's a lot of excitement about the production among our audience members," said Patricia Mitchell, president and CEO of the Ordway.
"You can tell from ticket buyers that they are excited to see a show that is by the people who brought us 'Les Miz.' They view it primarily as a popular musical theater piece."
Not that the Ordway is deaf to the complaints of protesters. When the decision was made to bring back "Miss Saigon," Ordway officials were aware of previous controversies.
"It's certainly part of the institutional history of the Ordway," said Mitchell, adding that the show remains compelling because it raises so many issues.
"What issue you focus on depends on the lens through which you look at the piece. If I look at it through my moral and political and philosophical feelings about the war, that tends to be how I see the piece. If you are an Asian or Asian-American actor, you might look at it through a casting lens. If you are an Asian or Asian-American woman, you might look at it through the lens of stereotypes."
That last lens came up at a "Miss Saigon" informational meeting attended by Reyes and Mitchell.
"There were people there who spoke very movingly of their very personal issues. A woman who identified herself as a Korean-American adoptee spoke up," Mitchell said. "She had met someone who said to her that she must be the child of a prostitute because why else would a mother give up her child?"
Mitchell said the Ordway is looking at the show as an opportunity to face those sorts of stereotypes and misconceptions. The theater has invited "Miss Saigon" ticket holders to a free conversation about the show.
There will be a question-and-answer session with the cast after at least one performance. And information, providing context for the show and the controversy, will appear in the program and on the Ordway website.
Performer and arts administrator Sandy Agustin, a Filipino-American who was a protester both times "Miss Saigon" was in town, said that's a good start.
"Wouldn't it be interesting if there were something in the program that said, 'We understand this story represents one, outdated perspective," she said.
"We understand people are offended by some of the stereotypes in this production, but it is our intention to generate dialogue around those stereotypes.' "
Agustin said she is disappointed "Miss Saigon" is returning, but she isn't surprised.
"I'm sure there are Asian-Americans who love the show, and the people who are in it are happy to be there," she said. "It's hard when something makes a lot of money like that.
"I get tired of it. People say, 'Sandy, you're an Asian-American, so of course you're getting upset about the show.' But you don't have to be an Asian-American woman to be upset by this. I'm also half-white. So, this time, let's say the other side of me is upset. The white side."
One performer who is happy to be in "Miss Saigon" is Orville Mendoza, the Filipino-American who plays the largest role, a Vietnamese huckster called the Engineer, who guides the audience through the show. Having performed "Miss Saigon" from 1994-2000 on tour and now back with the show, Mendoza may have a deeper experience with it than almost anyone.
"The show deals with difficult subject matter, but at no time have I felt like it was trying to make a statement that all, or even many, Asian people are like these characters. It is about a very small segment of the population," Mendoza said. "And not all shows depict people in the best light. People don't look at 'West Side Story' and think all Puerto Ricans are gangsters or 'Cabaret' and think all Germans are Nazis."
Mendoza was involved in last year's controversy at California's La Jolla Playhouse, where a new musical called "The Nightingale" cast a non-Asian actor as a Chinese man, so he said he understands where protesters here are coming from.
"These questions are still out there, positive and negative. We are still talking about race," Mendoza said. "I appreciate that people are still talking about the appropriateness of the show. They're entitled to their opinions, and it is not for everyone's taste."
Although Reyes said he wishes theaters would either stop performing "Miss Saigon" or revise it before they do, that does not seem likely to happen. A major London revival is planned for next year, with a possible Broadway followup and, in addition to the four-city tour the Ordway production is a part of, stagings are planned in Houston and Washington, D.C.
Mendoza can't speak for those other productions, but he said he views the one coming to the Ordway as "a blessing."
"I think the show can be used as a tool for people to express their feelings -- about our show or about the war or about how Asians in the media are portrayed," Mendoza said. "We want to be provocative and entertaining and raise questions about (the U.S.) involvement in Vietnam. But I give people my word that our intent is not to offend."
Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.
IF YOU GO
"Conversation Around 'Miss Saigon,' " hosted by Theater Mu at Minnesota Public Radio, 480 Cedar St., St. Paul; 6:30 p.m. Sept. 9. Free, but reservations are required by emailing email@example.com.
"Ordway Cultural Conversation," at Ordway's Marzitelli Foyer, 345 Washington St., St. Paul; 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22. Free. Ticketholders have been invited, but others may attend, depending on space availability.
What: "Miss Saigon"
When: Oct. 8-13
Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $26-$113; 651-224-4222 or ordway.org
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