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Miss Saigon ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
December 26, 2018

With the Vietnam War as dramatic backdrop, Miss Saigon is a poignant tale of star-crossed lovers amidst the horrors of war and its aftermath.  Under the direction of Laurence Connor of Broadway’s School of Rock and Les Misérables fame, this well-known interpretation of Puccini’s classic opera, Madama Butterfly, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil, has become one of the longest running shows on the American stage, and it remains indelibly powerful through its ability to capture love and loss.

Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Saigon in the spring of 1975 near the close of the great undeclared war brings together Chris (Anthony Festa), a young Marine, and Kim (Emily Bautista), a beautiful teenager forced into a life of prostitution in a seedy strip club called Dreamland.  Chris’s buddy, John (J. Daughtry), buys her attentions, gifting her to Chris who is searching for meaning in a country gone mad.  The club’s owner, a crafty con artist called The Engineer, senses the men’s keen interest in the innocent girl and ups the price.  “Men pay the moon to get fresh meat,” he snickers.

Red Concepción plays the sleazy Svengali to the hilt, delivering a phenomenal performance with equal parts charm, smarm and swagger.  “The Heat is On in Saigon” is a number a-swirl in strippers, pole dancers, beefy Marines and hustlers, especially notable for the introduction of Gigi, known as “The Sex Toy from Hanoi”.  When Gigi (Christine Bunuan), Kim and the other bar girls commiserate in “The Movie in My Mind”, we sense their despair for an inescapable life ruled by men and their whims.

Photo credit Matthew Murphy

In one fateful night, Chris and Kim find love amidst the ruins and pledge to wed marry despite her father’s insistence on her marriage to Thuy (Jinwoo Jung) who has since become a high-ranking commissar under Ho Chi Minh and his torturous reunification program.  Through 28 glorious numbers, the musical takes us from the fall of Saigon and the chaos that became Ho Chi Minh City, to Chris’ new life in Atlanta with Ellen (Stacie Bono) and Kim’s escape to Bangkok where the glitz and glamour of the privileged few coexist with war’s forgotten ones.  While awaiting Chris’ return, Kim falls into the clutches of the Moulin Rouge’s fearsome owner played by Eric Badiqué.

Bautista’s formidable vocal range and emotional tenderness gifts us with a compelling portrayal of a young woman fighting for her dignity and a hoped-for future for her son.  Her delivery of “Sun and Moon” to their tiny son, Tam, will pull at your heartstrings.  She is well-matched by Festa whose voice proves a perfect complement to hers.

Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Theatergoers will be wowed by this new production with a cast that delivers in spectacular synch.  Kudos to Sound Designer Mick Potter for the rhythmically clanking and stomping, devil-masked dancers and dragon acrobats, and the thundering helicopter rotors in the iconic scene of the last plane out of Vietnam that coordinate seamlessly with Lighting Designer Bruno Poet’s blood red expression of Communist rule juxtaposed against B-girls cavorting erotically on multiple staircases.  Special effects and video projections help to envelop the audience in a sensory explosion of a sexier, raunchier, more emotionally tender production than ever before.

Highly recommended.

Through January 13th in the Eisenhower Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Photo credit Matthew Murphy

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