Among the musical theater crowd, Miss Saigon is held as one of the classics of the genre, and has been beloved since its famous helicopter first swooped in in 1991. The revival which opened March 23rd at the Broadway Theatre is directed by Laurence Connor and boasts a brand new, more authentic conceptualization of the musical.
Sadly, this production did not live up to its claim of a new vision that is more accurate, dark, and genuinely Vietnamese. Unsurprisingly, Miss Saigon is as racist as ever: it is more of an orientalist fantasy romance between an American G.I. and a Vietnamese woman than a realistic look into fall of Saigon. Although Miss Saigon tells the story of a 17-year-old prostitute and her disastrous relationship with an American soldier, in this production it is certainly easy enough to miss all these serious themes and instead be distracted by the upbeat music, neon signs, awkwardly not-so-tragic tone, and unemotional acting.
Eva Noblezada makes her Broadway debut in this revival as Kim, the should-be emotional center of the musical. As her family is killed and her village burns she flees to Saigon and is quickly forced into prostitution. Somehow Nolbezada does not manage to portray Kim’s desperation and she seemed almost unaffected as she was repeatedly forced into sex work; the actress’ inexperience certainly shows. Alistair Brammer (also making his debut), plays Chris, the American soldier and quintessential white savior who decides to “save” Kim. Brammer proved to be equally inexperienced, giving a performance that was alarmingly operatic and filled with seemingly never-ending vibratos.
The only standout performance in the whole cast was Jon Jon Briones, who played the Engineer, Kim’s pimp. This role was originated by the white actor Jonathan Pryce, whose casting created a large controversy back in 1991. This production team knew better than the original and made an effort to cast Asian actors. Briones gave the most professional and nuanced performance of the ensemble. He had the audience in his hand the entire musical, from the first reveal of his DREAMLAND strip-club marquis to his final exit. The director, Connor, seemed too aware that Briones was stealing the show, and gave him the final bow, a unique choice for a romantic musical supposedly all about Kim.
This certainly wasn’t the only odd directorial choice. Though Connor may have been going for a more gritty, dark, and most importantly, accurate portrayal of the Vietnam War, he certainly missed the mark. Both acts are centered on prostitution bars and slum housing, but instead of feeling like a poverty-stricken war zone it felt more like a sexy cabaret. The scenography (design concept by Adrian Vaux, costumes by Andreane Neofitou, lighting by Bruno Poet, and sets by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley) certainly did nothing to help create a more serious or tragic tone.
The mood of the entire musical felt oddly off: all the scenes with prostitution felt weirdly fun, while the deeply tragic moments of death or separation were boring or glossed over. Somehow very serious songs about sex work turned into massive production numbers, most oddly the Engineer’s fantasy song about opening up a strip club in the USA, which instead of being a tragic moment about a dream he never gets to fulfil, became a spectacle full of feather headdresses, a giant statue of liberty, a Cadillac, a white fur coat, and money raining from the sky.
The audience seemed more captivated by the smiling girls in underwear dancing than by the heart-wrenching ballads about loss. So the question is, whose fault is it? Did the actors not portray the emotion of the piece enough? Maybe. Is the show poorly written? Probably. Did the director not emphasize the right moments or execute a new vision? Absolutely. If there is anyone to blame for this revival being lackluster, still racist, and not very different from the original, it’s the director.
In 2017, it’s difficult to reconcile a play that is so overtly orientalist and racist. It is important to remember, however, that in 2015, Barlett Sher managed to give new life to The King and I, an equally racist musical, this time making it not a romance, but a dark musical that explore deep themes and stayed true to is Thai subject matter; it managed to be subversive, not racist. Sadly, this revival came nowhere close to the important work done by the recent King and I revival.
The writers of the musical, Boublil and Sconberg, attempt to address the problematic content in the show, and even changed some lyrics. Most notably, they transferred “The Wedding Song” which was originally written as gibberish that was meant to “sound Vietnamese” into actual Vietnamese with the help of Christopher Vo. Although they made this change—which we should not applaud them for, it is honestly appalling that for all these years they never thought to actually have Vietnamese lyrics in Miss Saigon—they somehow did not feel it was necessary to change the plethora of other alarmingly racist lines, such as the Engineer’s “Why was I born into a race that only care about rice?” What is most alarming about the racism in Miss Saigon is not the American biases against the Vietnamese, which are sadly accurate, but the orientalist self-hating racist lines the Asian character say about themselves.
Though this production cast Asian actors, directed Laurence Connor could not make up for the fact that Miss Saigon is still an extremely problematic and racist musical. Seemingly he made no genuine efforts at staging a more authentic and realistic version of the show and instead relied on the same gimmicky tricks the show is known for: a real live helicopter, a massive gold head of Ho Chi Minh, and a paper dragon, a.k.a Orientalism 101. Maybe Miss Saigon could get away with such blatant racism in 1991, but in 2017 the musical feels less loveable than it does problematic.