THEATRE

The fall of Saigon

Despite its merits, a musical turns to mush

John Bemrose June 7 1993
THEATRE

The fall of Saigon

Despite its merits, a musical turns to mush

John Bemrose June 7 1993

The fall of Saigon

THEATRE

Despite its merits, a musical turns to mush

MISS SAIGON By Alain Bulbils and Claude| Michel Schönberg

In The Phantom of the Opera, the famous chandelier hurtles towards the audience. In Les Misérables, an enormous street barricade materializes onstage. And in Miss Saigon, the most high-tech of them all, a helicopter churns down on to a rooftop. That moment is captured in the show’s logo, an Oriental ideograph whose shape suggests both a helicopter and a shadowy human face. The image has been almost everywhere in Toronto in recent months. And, along with the musical’s international reputation, it made the production of Miss Saigon, at the city’s new Princess of Wales Theatre, a boxoffice sensation even before it opened on May 26: advance ticket sales topped $30 million.

But its artistic success is another matter. The trouble with the recent megamusicals is that they pursue pathos so arduously that they often smother the natural reactions of the audience.

They insist too fervently that Important Emotions are being conveyed. Throughout Miss Saigon, the orchestra strains mightily, voices soar and quaver and the Meaningful Moments pile up with a frequency worthy of The Oprah Winfrey Show. There is no

doubt that many audience members enjoy the emotional binge. But for others, Miss Saigon delivers a lot more bark than bite. It is a musical about deep feelings that, in key scenes, remains emotionally anesthetized.

The basic story, inspired by Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, concerns a Saigon prostitute during the Vietnam War. Kim (MaAnne Dionisio) falls in love with an American soldier, Chris (H. E. Greer). After a two-week affair, they are painfully separated when the American army abandons Saigon, in the spring of 1975. Left behind in the now-Communist city, Kim raises their child, Tam, while clinging courageously to the hope that Chris will return to rescue them.

Miss Saigon delivers some aspects of Kim’s ultimately tragic story with great finesse. Philippine-born Dionisio, a 19-yearold Winnipegger playing her first major stage role, brings a convincing sense of youthful vulnerability to the character of Kim, especially in the early scenes when she has first arrived in Saigon from the country. Keeping her arms close to her body, balancing awkwardly on high heels, she looks as if she would rather disappear than face her new life in the city’s brothels. Dionisio sings beautifully, too. Her voice has a dusky, thrilling quality in the lower registers, and can soar to an almost ethereal purity. Near the end of the musical, she reprises the haunting love song Sun and Moon as she prepares for Chris’s imminent return, unaware of the complications that have made a permanent reunion impossi-

ble. The scene has a rivetting poignancy.

Another strength is Kevin Gray’s Engineer, the sleazy pimp of mixed French and Oriental blood who tries to use Kim and her

son to achieve his burning ambition: American citizenship. Like Thénardier in Les Misérables (created, along with Miss Saigon, by librettist Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg), The Engineer is a likable villain. His corrosive wit and straightforward greed come as a great relief after the high emotion of the other char-

acters. When Gray sings and dances his way through the darkly satirical number The American Dream (at one point he mimes lovemaking to a Cadillac that floats out on a cloud), he seems a demonic Fred Astaire, his eyes weirdly unfocused in an ecstasy of material lust.

And the famous helicopter scene—for all the expectations heaped on it—turns out to be one of the most gripping in the musical. As the last Americans flee Saigon, crowds of Vietnamese storm the U.S. embassy, futilely waving official passes that promise them entry to the United States. Their collective agony, set against blinding searchlights and throbbing helicopter engines, is so affecting that it upstages the missed meeting between Chris and Kim. The treachery and tragedy of America’s flight from Vietnam has rarely been so powerfully depicted.

Yet for all the merits of Miss Saigon, the story as a whole keeps losing its emotional edge—most crucially in the climax, when Kim gives up her life so that her son can have what ' she trusts will be a decent future in America. There is no catharsis here: in attempting high tragedy, the musical overreaches and collapses. There are many reasons for this. Dionisio still lacks the depth to convey extreme grief

and stress. And H. E. Greer has a one-note role as Chris, whose perpetual anguish and confusion become tedious.

The character of Chris shares the musical’s larger problem—an insistent stridency that shows a lack of trust in the audience’s ability to feel. And by hammering so hard at the sadness of its tale, Miss Saigon forfeits musical subtlety and variety as well. With the exception of two or three memorable numbers, the show’s score is not up to the level of Les Miz, itself a fairly strident musical. Miss Saigon is a melodrama that weighs itself down with so much heavy-handed insistence on its own importance that it too often flies straight into a mountainside.

JOHN BEMROSE