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"Miss Saigon" @ the Fisher Theater Review

As the follow-up to their smash success in 1985 with Les Misérables, the team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil followed up four years later with the mega-successful Miss Saigon though it's a little hard to tell why from the touring version running through October 6 at the Fisher Theater in Detroit's New Center.

Updating the story of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Miss Saigon is the story of Kim (Manna Nichols), a innocent farm girl recruited by an oily pimp known as The Engineer (Orville Mendoza) into his club in Saigon that services American GIs.

On her first night, a GI named John (Nkrumah Gatling) hires her for the whole night for his buddy Chris (Charlie Brady). Of course, this clean-cut Ken doll instantly falls in love with the innocent Kim and swears to marry her and take her back to America.

Naturally, this doesn't happen because Saigon falls and abruptly it's three years later and life under Ho Chi Mihn's Communists sucks and Kim's cousin Thuy (Jonny Hsu Lee), a commissar whom she was set up in an arranged marriage as a younger girl wants her to be his and isn't too happy that she has a son by Chris. As he moves to kill the boy, Kim shoots Thuy and flees with the Engineer, posing as her brother, to Bangkok, Thailand; ending the first act.

The second act opens with John running an organization looking after the "Bui-Doi," the Amer-Asian children of servicemen whose song is accompanied by a movie overhead showing these actual children of war while slamming America for making a mess in the place. (This bit of heavy-handed preachiness is understandable when you realize that the French used to hold Vietnam as a colony and the composers are French taking the easy cheap shot.)  John has learned of Kim's child and let's the now-married-to-an-American woman Chris know and he decides to travel to Bangkok to make right the situation somehow.

While Chris and John look for Kim, she's been given Chris' room number by the Engineer and runs smack into his wife, Ellen (Meggie Cansler), who lets her know that Chris is her man now. She's in a rough spot, but doesn't want her husband's baby mama and kid lurking around back home so she tells Chris it's her or his old flame. Chris decides to go home with Ellen, but will send money to care for Kim and Tam (Daphne Zhang Valenta - yes, a little girl plays the son). This is unacceptable to Kim, who longs for her child to be free of poverty and knowing there's only one way to ensure Tam gets his chance, makes the ultimate sacrifice, which apparently was a surprise to the fellow sitting next to me even though it's the same ending Madame Butterfly had.

As with all musicals, the success or failure begins with the songs and frankly I was underwhelmed by the mostly tuneless tunes of Miss Saigon. I'm not too crazy about Les Miz's score, but there was more meat to be found in the French Revolution then in the squalor of wartime Saigon. At its best - the penultimate showstopper "The American Dream" (see the clip below from the 1991 Tony Awards which I remembered) - there's something to hum on your way out of the theater, but most of them were forgettable and in the case of "Last Night of the World" with its ridiculous theme of "a song played on solo saxophone" it sounded like a parody of bad 1980's dentists office pop schlock.

Compounding the weak score were the problematic tag team of Brady and Nichols as the star-crossed lovers. Brady was frequently pitchy in his vocals and bland as Wonder bread in his performance. While the show's book is rather threadbare with a very weird structural choice (more later), he just can't sell his pathos. Nichols, while sweet and cute, possesses a too-light voice and was frequently on the verge of being overwhelmed by the orchestra, even with the assist of amplification. This really came into stark relief whenever she had to share songs with Cansler, who easily outshone Nichols without trying.

While the main couple were weak, the first ring of supporting players, namely Cansler and Gatling are quite good, only eclipsed by the wonderful Mendoza who makes the Engineer the uncynical heart of the show. He's a hustler and a pimp who seeks fortune, but he's willing to work hard for it and Mendoza holds your attention like a rare earth magnet every time he takes the spotlight. Frankly, compared to Jonathan Pryce's Tony-winning performance below, I preferred Mendoza's.

Back to the weak aspects: The second act is much stronger than the curiously flat and condensed-feeling first act, with better songs and bigger numbers. The weirdest part though is a flashback to the Fall of Saigon and how Chris and Kim were separated. In the first act, the leap to three years later felt abrupt and confusing, leaving the audience wondering what had happened. Why was this crucial and dramatic scene moved out of sequence? Only the writers know why. The long-running success of the show indicates people generally don't mind these structural weaknesses, but they bothered me.

More bothersome was the chintzy quality of the sets and somewhat sloppy choreography. Touring shows are at an understandable disadvantage due to their mobile nature versus shows that get to stay in customized theaters - anyone who has seen The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway or at the "gloriously restored Pantages Theater" in Toronto and when it was at the Masonic Temple on tour knows the differences - but for the most part the shows I've seen at the Fisher Theater over the past couple of years (like Rock of Ages, The Book of Mormon, West Side Story) looked solid with sharp dancing from the company. Miss Saigon's sets looked flimsy with noticeable wobbling at times and the dancing felt haphazard and rough. This isn't community theater - this is top-dollar "Broadway in Detroit" show, so to see such shabbiness was disappointing.

Overall, it's hard to recommend this production of Miss Saigon to anyone but the most passionate fans of the show, but even they may be let down by the specifics of this production and cast outside the sublime Orville Mendoza, Meggie Cansler and Nkrumah Gatling.
Miss Saigon is running at the Fisher Theater until October 6, 2013. Get more info and tickets here. The show runs 2 hours 40 minutes including one 20-minute intermission.