On Stage: A Blast from the Past

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: History remembered in Signature Theatre’s ‘Miss Saigon.’

"Miss Saigon" (Photo by Christopher Meuller)

Signature Theatre’s “Miss Saigon” (Photo by Christopher Mueller)

As the baby boomer generation begins to die out, the profound tragedy that was the Vietnam War also begins to fade from the nation’s memory. But as long as theater companies like Signature Theatre continue to stage productions of “Miss Saigon,” we are forced to remember that painful episode in American history.

Director Eric Schaeffer has mounted an ambitious, complex production of “Miss Saigon” that provocatively fills the intimate MAX Theatre in a staging that brings the action so close that the experience is gut-wrenching in this musical that forces a confrontation with the terrible fall of Saigon, ending a war the United States lost as helicopters rescued frantic Americans from the embassy compound, leaving behind to the invading Viet Cong so many of the endangered Vietnamese who had worked and allied themselves with the United States. It will forever be a shameful day in American history.

There was another ugly tragedy, and that was all the Amerasian children left behind who had been fathered by American soldiers. “Miss Saigon” is a retelling of Puccini’s 1904 opera “Madama Butterfly,” an impossible love story between a Saigon bar girl and an American soldier. What makes “Miss Saigon” so painful is the awareness that this love affair cannot end well and you spend most of the show in anticipation. And as in “Madama Butterfly,” the soldier leaves behind a son he isn’t aware existed.

“Miss Saigon” is described as the most technically ambitious show Signature has ever produced. It is amazingly complex, and except that it’s frequently over-miked, the staging is impressive and works from the moment you enter the theater. Throughout the MAX theatre is the debris of war, wrecked airplanes, tattered parachutes and other unidentified discarded pieces of machinery. There is a mist in the air and the opening curtain is a large, torn parachute.

Schaeffer has once again gathered a cast of strong singing voices, but the standout performance of this production is Thomas Sesma who is called the Engineer. He is a sleazy hustler who runs a bar where girls are available for anything the clients (the soldiers) desire. The music of “Miss Saigon” is not memorable and because of the overly loud amplification, can be jarring. But near the end of the show, Sesma sings the cynical “The American Dream” and it is a showstopper. He is more the star of the show than the star-crossed lovers, Kim (Diana Huey) and Chris (Jason Michael Evans).

The 18-member singing and dancing cast is solidly backed by the superb 15-member orchestra under the direction of Gabriel Mangiante.

There are weak moments in “Miss Saigon” that are not the fault of this production, but are in the show itself. The Signature production is a smash hit and was extended even before it opened. There is so much mystique around “Miss Saigon” stemming from its Broadway opening in 1991 because of the helicopter that landed on the stage. Like the crashing chandelier in “Phantom of the Opera,” the helicopter caught the audience’s attention and helped fill the theater. There isn’t room in the MAX Theatre for a helicopter. It would fill the entire space.

Schaeffer, however, has cleverly devised effective staging for the fall of Saigon — the sound of a hovering helicopter fills the theater with bright lights to recreate that famous photograph of escaping Americans and frantic Vietnamese desperately trying to find space on the last rescue flights. As the helicopter noises rise, a buffeting of air is blown in the direction of the audience. You can’t see a helicopter but you can feel the rotating blades.

In Signature’s “Miss Saigon,” it is all about atmospherics and the impressive work of scenic designer Adam Kosh; lighting designer, Chris Lee; sound designer Matt Rowe; and costume designer Frank Labowitz.

In this carefully designed production, Schaeffer projects the ugly Vietnam War experience bluntly and effectively. “Miss Saigon” is a musical that is far less about music than it is about a profound American tragedy that cannot be permitted to fade into the softer focus of memory.

Signature Theatre‘s “Miss Saigon” runs through Sept. 29 in the MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA 22206, 571-527-1860, $40 available here or 703-573-7328.

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