The lumbering whirlibird with the dragonfly eyes and the glittering Cadillac have returned to Broadway, possibly, to steal a phrase from that other big revival down the street, back where they belong. Produced by Cameron Mackointosh, Miss Saigon landed here in 1991 with a record-breaking $32 million in the bank. But as fans of Babe Ruth learned on April 8, 1974, records are made for breaking, and this season the Bette Midler-led revival of Hello, Dolly! is playing the role of Hank Aaron, coming in with $40 million under its voluminous gown.
Still, Miss Saigon was, and is, a phenomenon, and this production, directed by Laurence Connor, is sensational in every way: visually and sonically (often painfully so). Most important, it’s brilliantly cast, to continue the baseball analogy, with leads from the Mackintosh farm team who are more than ready for the big leagues.
This follow-up by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil to Schönberg and Boublil’s Les Misérables stuck with the formula of rockifying a classic, this time also updating it, turning Puccini’s Madame Butterfly into a Vietnam War melodrama. Chris, an American soldier, falls in love with the virginal prostitute Kim but is forced to leave her behind during the chaotic evacuation of U.S. forces in Saigon in 1975. Back in the States, Chris marries Ellen, unaware that the faithful Kim has bore him a son and continues to labor under the thumb of her pimp, The Engineer, sure her man will return and rescue them.
Connor, who had his own tryout with the recent revival of Les Miz, has reimagined Nicholas Hytner’s original production, which was memorably designed by John Napier and David Hersey. The new look is attributed to Adrian Vaux (“concept”), Totie Driver & Matt Kinley (design) and Bruno Poet (lighting), and it makes pre-evacuation Saigon — the Dreamland brothel scenes — even darker and more decadent than the original. The later scenes in the renamed Ho Chi Minh City and then Bangkok are equally effective, if not quite as vulgarized as in the original. It’s riotously loud and clangorous (Mick Potter did the sound) as the Broadway Theatre stage is filled with girls bumping and grinding away (the deliberately lewd costumes are by Andreane Neofitou and the dancing is by Bob Avian, who also choreographed the original production) as The Engineer prods, poses and sells, sells, sells.
Miss Saigon is a show that eats its cheesecake and has it too, like a skin flick that runs a banner at the end promising to donate proceeds to a home for wayward girls. The second act begins with a meeting in Atlanta for a foundation that reunites servicemen with the children they left behind, called bui-doi, or “dust of life.” We’re shown a brief documentary about these children and told that some proceeds from the show were donated to the foundation, though no such eleemosynary impulse is mentioned here. Of course the model — Madame Butterfly the opera — was no less manipulative; melodrama and mad-faithful moms driven to tawdry lives is a time-honored theme. Still.
The original production also stirred controversy with the casting of the great Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp, The Engineer. Here he’s played by Jon Jon Briones, who’s brilliant as an unctuous cock o’ the walk for whom no amount of strutting can hide the sleaziness, mendacity and desperation barely below the skin. The show’s high point (which is really its low point) — “The American Dream” number that requires The Engineer to fornicate with that virginal Cadillac — is more chilling than I’ve ever seen it, and made me realize how much like a Kander and Ebb song, maybe out of Chicago, it is (that’s a compliment).
The production’s other big discovery is Eva Noblezada, who plays Kim, the role memorably originated by Lea Salonga. Noblezada radiates conviction and, over the course of the show, a compelling transformation from innocence to survival at any cost. Her voice is less polished than Salonga’s, but I found that to be a plus as well.
Alistair Brammer and Katie Rose Clarke are fine in the comparatively thankless roles of Chris and Ellen, and I hope there’s oxygen backstage for poor little Gregory Ye, the tyke who played the child, Tam, at the performance I saw (he alternates with Samuel Li Weintraub); he spends most of his time onstage with his head clamped against various necks and bosoms. By the end, that’s sort of how I felt about Miss Saigon: two hours, 40 minutes passed with my head buried in a lot of heaving chests, grateful to come up for air.
The Encores! series at City Center follows up the terrific Big River with an all-but-unknown early Cole Porter/Herbert Fields show, The New Yorkers, from 1930. It’s an eyeful and an earful, a total delight. Artistic director and concert adapter Jack Viertel has taken more liberties than usual with this presentation, in part because there wasn’t much to work with in the way of a libretto. And while most of the songs were by a very young and already astronomically talented Porter, there was imported special material for star Jimmy Durante. The show was as much a vaudeville as a Broadway musical, as Viertel puts it: “It was simply a craziness, a giddy, gilded entertainment of the period. The unusually reckless tone was refreshing … combining a ribald high-society sex comedy with a gangland backdrop…”
Thus freed from their usual commitment to restoring forgotten musicals to their original form, Viertel, along with director John Rando, music director Rob Berman, choreographer Chris Bailey and a design team run riot (especially costumiere Alejo Vietti), get larcenous not only with the Porter catalogue but with the jokester’s playbook as well. Porter, like Philip Barry (The Philadelphia Story), took pleasure in biting the hand that bred him. But Porter had a dirtier mind and a facility for suggestiveness that champed against restraint.
That got him in trouble with the censors with the best-known song from The New Yorkers, “Love For Sale,” a prostitute’s pungent invitation to anyone who’s “prepared to pay the price for a trip to paradise” to enjoy her “appetizing young love.” If you think the song belongs to Billie Holiday, you may change your mind after hearing Cyrille Aimée sing it here. A thrilling young jazz singer, she makes the number throb in an otherwise delirious flapper fest where lines are swiped from Kiss Me Kate and Tennessee Williams, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is treated as a Bible (an Encores! in-joke) and the only misstep is the interpolation of “Night And Day,” too well-known, ill-fitting the occasion and underwhelming in the delivery.