Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ at The Kennedy Center

Miss Saigon is all grown up.  Sort of. It’s been almost 30 years since Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s blockbuster opened in London’s West End and took the world by storm.  But times have changed. And while watching the “new” production of the show that just landed at the Kennedy Center, it seems Miss Saigon hasn’t held up as well as one would have hoped. The big songs and grand moments are still there, but it all seems a bit hokey now. It’s sort of like watching a favorite tv show decades later and finding the whole thing kind of silly. Because, although we have grown and changed, Miss Saigon hasn’t. It’s predictable and familiar. And that’s precisely the problem.      

The National Touring Company of Miss Saigon. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The National Touring Company of Miss Saigon. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and set at the end of the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon is the story of Kim (Emily Bautista), a South Vietnamese girl, and Chris (Anthony Festa), the American GI she falls in love with on the eve of the fall of Saigon. Three years later, Kim has given birth to a child, Tam (Chris’s son) and is now working as a dancer in a seedy bar in Bangkok. She lives with the hope that the American soldier will return and take her to America. On the other side of the world, Chris is now married to a woman named Ellen (Stacie Bono) but remains haunted by his time in Vietnam and the love he left behind.

This Miss Saigon, which opened at the Kennedy Center this past week, is the 2017 Broadway revival, a reimagined staging directed by Laurence Connor, although it did not seem so terribly different than the original production that I saw in London 23 years ago. Mr. Conor hasn’t ushered Miss Saigon in to the 21st century. Rather, his production seems sort of stuck in the early 1990s. And by failing to make this piece relevant, Mr. Conor hasn’t really made a compelling case to justify this revival.  

Miss Saigon is larger than life. There is little subtlety or nuance. Its plot has more holes than swiss cheese. Its characters are mostly types rather than fully fleshed out people. And that’s fine. Great actually. It retains many elements of the best opera. But we have little reason to care now. Conor’s production is big just for the sake of being big.  As they say, “there’s no there there.”

This is not meant to give short shrift to the many wonderful elements on display here. Emily Bautista is thrilling as Kim. She has a powerful, rich voice and clearly conveys the timidness of Kim that gives way to strength. Red Concepcion is a revelation in the pivotal role of The Engineer. The Engineer is an unsavory fellow, a pimp, a petty criminal who functions as a sort of master of ceremonies. As played by Mr. Concepcion, The Engineer commands every moment he’s on the vast stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House. He possesses the broad style, the flair and, elan, that the material requires.

Red Concepcion in Miss Saigon. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Red Concepcion in Miss Saigon. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The set is appropriately dark and battered. But the costumes look as if they’ve never been off a hanger, let alone through a war. Special mention must be made of Bruno Poet’s exceptionally evocative lighting. Filtered through what appear to be grates, when the characters refer to Saigon as hell, Mr. Poet’s lighting suggests that that is exactly where we are.  

Miss Saigon speaks to so many issues that are relevant today: immigration, the subjugation of women, America’s role on the world stage. As an introduction to the material, this production is satisfactory, if not particularly exciting. But I was hoping for so much more.

Miss Saigon plays through January 13, 2018, at the Kennedy Center Opera House — 2700 F Street NW in Washington, D.C.  For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

With Emily Bautista, Stacie Bono, Red Concepcion, J. Daughtry, Anthony Festa, and Jinwoo Jung. Lighting design by Bruno Poet; Projections by Luke Halls; Sound design by Mick Potter; Costume design by Andreane Neofitou; Design concept by Adrian Vaux; Production design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley; Musical Staging and Choreography by Bob Avian; Additional Choreography by Geoffrey Garratt.

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David Gerson
David Gerson is an attorney who has lived and worked in Baltimore for the last two and half years. Prior to moving to Charm City, he lived in NYC where he worked in the theatre business for almost a decade as a manager, administrator, and producer. He has worked on several Broadway' productions including 'Rent' and 'Crybaby'; 'Michael Moore Live in London; and produced new work by award-winning playwright Jenny Schwartz and playwright and screenwriter Nathan Parker, among others. He was the General Manager of New York Stage and Film, where he managed a season of new plays by writers including Eve Ensler and Richard Greenberg. He holds an MFA in Theatre Management and Producing from Columbia University and a JD from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. When he is not advocating for his clients or attending theatre, he serves the needs of a very demanding but totally adorable three-year old puggle named Jackie.

4 COMMENTS

    • Miss Siagon was my all time favorite show. I was so excited to share with my teenagers… So disappointed! It left nothing to the imagination. The graphic scenes overtook all the romance. Instead of leaving with the beautiful story of romance, self sacrifice and memorable songs running through my head, I left with visuals of ladies rubbing themselves, a sex scene that was humping complete with a naked butt (not romantic), and embarrassment that my kids watched.
      The orchestra was awesome!

  1. You know that moment when you realize the people around you are all sociopaths? The moment for us was last night right before we left the Kennedy Center’s Miss Saigon, minutes into the show. People actually applauded to this adolescent’s wet dream.

    You could almost hear the fluttering of self-pleasuring stereotypes, rationalization and insecurities.

  2. The reviewer must not have seen the original Broadway production. I found the lead singers marginal, the dances numbers were very well done but in the scene with the North Viet Cong dancing and praising Ho Chi Min-come on Washington-you could not find 40 Asian dancers instead of white men with body/face paint? (especially true with the three muscular men in this scene). Chris’s wife is quite dumpy and certainly lacks emotions. There was vulgarity for the sake of crudeness. There wasn’t anything classy about this Washington production. Outstanding in this production was the actress that portrayed Mini Von Trunh and the actor that played the role of Kim’s VietCong lover. Both stole the show with vibrant voices and emotions-you could feel how they felt. The orchestra was excellent but the sound system in this production was horrible. The role of the Engineer is pivotal in this play and the actor that protrayed him was horrible. His constant use of the switchblade and lack of singing voice and dance skills was a insult to everyone that played that role before him

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