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Swept away by the women of ‘Miss Saigon’ at Playhouse Square

February 1, 2019 GMT

Swept away by the women of ‘Miss Saigon’ at Playhouse Square

The first time I saw “Miss Saigon” at Playhouse Square, Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” was on tight rotation on my car stereo (it was 1996, after all).

What I remember most about the show is running out of tissues, and the roar and the wind of the helicopter blades as a real chopper appeared to land onstage.

The details of the story — the doomed romance between Kim, an orphaned teenager, and Chris, a hunky GI — faded fast. But plot was a secondary concern. It was the age of the megamusical, and I’d come for the spectacle.

This time around, it will be the casualties of the Vietnam War I’ll remember, among them the bar girls of Dreamland, a sleazy club where drinks and women come cheap.

They are introduced in an explicit opening number, “The Heat Is On,” where they are bent over tables, bounced on laps or seen on their knees, ever groped and pawed by drunk U.S. servicemen. Director Laurence Connor aimed to deliver a grittier, more true-to-life “Miss Saigon,” and these raw, uncomfortable moments — a thong slip away from parents making for the exits, preteens in tow — more than prove he’s done it.

Gigi (Christine Bunuan), a veteran of the joint, asks a soldier to take her to America with him. “I’d make you a good wife,” she says. He’s revolted by the suggestion and brutally tosses her aside.

She answers, poignantly, with “The Movie in My Mind,” a fantasy of escape that plays in her head when she’s “in a strong GI’s embrace.”

He takes me to New York

He gives me dollar bills

Our children laugh all day

And eat too much ice cream

And life is like a dream…

The dream I long to find

The movie in my mind

The potent Bunuan is joined by a chorus of bar girls, positioned on stairs and landings above her. Their faces are pinpointed by spotlights and shine in the dark like paper lanterns, as though their very longing was illuminating them from the inside. The women of the ensemble are powerfully good — they offer more than simple titillation. We see in their smiles and come-ons a world-weariness they can’t quite disguise.

Into this hellscape comes 17-year-old Kim (Emily Bautista). Her family was killed before her eyes during an attack on her village, forcing her to take a job at Dreamland to survive.

She is a particularly delectable dish on the menu, announces The Engineer (Red Concepción), the opportunistic pimp who runs the bar: Men will pay top dollar for a virgin. Even Kim’s costume — a demure long dress, a stark contrast to the fishnets and bikinis that surround her — is unspoiled white.

It’s here she meets Chris, played by Anthony Festa, who sings with passion and exudes a good-hearted openness we like to associate with being American, even in the age of walls and government shutdowns. He’s the sort of guy who would pull over to help you change a tire in the rain.

When they sing “The Last Night of the World” — a duet that perfectly captures the heady, crazy strains of young love — it’s thrilling. (For me, the number has always been the most memorable in a score that doesn’t quite stick to the ribs the way the songs in “Les Miserables,” the composers’ earlier hit, do.)

But this 21st-century iteration of “Miss Saigon” isn’t about Chris, and it’s not about The Engineer, despite an effectively reptilian portrayal by Concepción, right down to his red snakeskin-patterned pants.

In the demented, Vegas-style showstopper “American Dream,” he lusts for a visa to earn a shot at the capitalistic riches he is sure await him in the United States. As The Engineer hoofs it with a feather-bedecked chorus line, the disembodied head of the Statue of Liberty, her mouth suggestively agape, disgorges a white Cadillac, complete with a busty blonde, wrapped in fur, in the back seat. He mounts the car and grinds his hips into the hood, pretending to ravish the old-school symbol of American wealth and prosperity.

He’s a naughty scene-stealer, but this is Kim’s story. We often see her, motionless, center stage, bathed in light, as people move around her.

Despite his best intentions, Chris leaves her behind as Saigon falls. Her fight to live to see him again is the life blood of the production. Bautista gracefully carries the narrative weight. She wins us over with Kim’s joy at having found a love and, she thinks, a savior in Chris. Then, she breaks our hearts with her hard evolution, three years later, into a desperate, even dangerous, woman. The country is now controlled by communist forces, and women, like Kim, who had consorted with the enemy are seen as traitors.

Although Chris didn’t know it, Kim was pregnant when he left her. Their child, like so many, was “conceived in hell, born in strife,” as the lyrics to “Bui Doi” explain. The song’s title refers to the children of Vietnamese mothers and American fathers, such as Kim’s fictional son, Tam. (Tyler Dunn, one of four darlings alternating the role, has perfected the art of remaining perfectly still while being sung at and slung around like a sack of potatoes. He earned the loudest applause at Wednesday’s curtain call.)

We see the “bui doi” in searing documentary footage at the top of Act 2, and it’s one of the few, brief times the musical ventures into politics. “They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do,” sings a chorus of absent daddies. Those children are also a reminder of something else — the sexual exploitation of Vietnamese women by American forces and men like The Engineer. It’s the same story, repeated the world over, in conflicts past and present, from the endless strife in war-torn Congo to fresh outrages in Yemen and Syria.

Chris learns he has fathered a son and that Kim and the boy are living as refugees in Bangkok. While Kim has stubbornly held onto her love for her vanished GI as if it were a burning coal in her hand, Chris has moved on with his life and married the preternaturally patient Ellen (Stacie Bono).

Is there a more unfairly reviled character in modern musical theater history? Even though we should blame Chris, it’s Ellen we inevitably see as the impediment to Kim’s happiness in America, a bucolic Disneyland where she and Chris would feed Tam ice cream and laugh all day.

I admire the efforts of “Maybe,” a new song for Ellen from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg to make Ellen more sympathetic. (Wish it had.)

Chris and Ellen travel to Bangkok, a move that sets the tragic finale in motion. If you know Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” you know what’s coming, and the end is hard to take in 2019. But then again, think of how many fewer tragedies there would be onstage, on-screen and in life if women were able to wash unworthy men out of their hair.

On the subzero Wednesday critics were invited to see the show, the long-awaited helicopter that strafes the theater to whisk Chris away in Act 2 was a shadow of its former self — literally. With the real thing grounded by “mechanical difficulties,” the crew deployed a camo-colored projection. (Word is the copter will be up and running for the rest of the run.)

Luckily, the production is no longer about whiz-bang scenery and massive set pieces.

What I’ll remember of the re-imagined “Miss Saigon” is Kim, almost spectral in white, riding the shoulders of a crowd trying to breach the gates of the American Embassy, her arms reaching out, and finding nothing.

REVIEW

Miss Saigon

What: The KeyBank Broadway Series presents the North American tour of the Tony Award-winning musical. Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. Additional lyrics by Michael Mahler. Book by Boublil and Schonberg. Directed by Laurence Connor.

When: Through Sunday, Feb 17.

Where: KeyBank State Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $10-$125. Go to playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.