Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Miss Saigon" at the Media Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

People pick the worst times to fall in love. Take Chris (Christopher deProphetis), an embassy guard in Saigon. A few weeks from his redeployment home, he used to “love getting stoned and waking up with some whore,” but now he feels only disgust over the life he’s led in country. Then he meets Kim (Michelle Liu Coughlin), on the night of her first “deployment” in a brothel, and quickly falls in love—as she represents all the innocence that this do-gooder felt when he first arrived in Vietnam.

It’s bad enough when you’re forced to admit to friends, “this is the guy I met while trolling on Craigslist,” but imagine the story he’d have to tell… Such is the plot of the smash musical Miss Saigon, now in production at the Media Theater. Or rather, it would’ve been the plot, if NVC’s hadn’t overrun the embassy in 1975, forcing Chris to flee on the last helicopter, abandoning the woman now pregnant with his child.

Back in the states, Chris has (re)married—Kim believes they had wed after a village ceremony—and only returns to Southeast Asia after a visit from his old army buddy John (Jonathon Lee Iverson) informs him that he has a son, now living in Bangkok with Kim. Chris and the new wife Ellen (Jessica Edwards), though realizing that they could provide a much better life for the child in America, struggle over what to do with the child, causing some conflict, (if they had only asked themselves “What Would Angelina Do?”), before Kim preempts their decision with one of her own at the musical’s end.

My insensitive jokes aside, Miss Saigon stands as both a powerful love story, a tale of a mother’s love, and the failure of good intentions that too often lead to tragedy, set to emotionally powerful (some would say manipulatively so) music and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil—the same pair that wrote Les Mis—with additional lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.

Under Jesse Cline’s direction, the Media’s production focuses mostly on the love story, but in what’s quickly becoming his signature style, Cline took a story of drunk, roughhousing GI’s, Vietnamese prostitutes and violent pimps, and a war ravaged country, and made it even lewder. After watching this production, I felt like I needed to take a bath.

Which is to this production’s credit, as Kim is no “hooker with a heart of gold,”—a character for whom prostitution is romanticized in everything from Madame Butterfly to Pretty Woman—but a farm girl who watched her family butchered, her village burnt to the ground, and found that her only escape from both the atrocities of war and a prearranged marriage to a violent cousin (Anton Briones) lay in (literally) prostitution. There’s nothing romantic in this—and Cline (rightly) doesn’t treat it that way. Instead, he intensifies the drama by letting her remaining innocence become the last battlement in her psyche to fall victim to this onslaught.

Cline also managed to assemble a stellar cast to sing the 30-plus songs this musical contains. As Chris, deProphetis seems chosen as much for his physique—one that equals his rich voice—and for his earnest, American-boy appeal, that he conveys well in his innocent, though bumbling manner. Coughlin adds her own charm, delighting as Kim, so long as she’s not forced to belt unendingly under Steve Ertelt’s musical direction (that also requires this of most of the cast). Moreover, she plays her role to great effect—shy and demure enough throughout that she devastates when she cries, “you don’t know what I’ve done to be here.”

But the supporting cast nearly runs away with the show. Briones gorgeous voice sparkles vocally in the darkest role, and Iverson’s and Edwards’ compelling solo numbers emotionally anchor their conflicting interests. John Haggerty’s engineer—the comedic undercurrent and embodiment of seediness—sings and entertains wildly, even if not quite nasty enough to convince that he’s capable of the violence that colors his daily life as a pimp.

The production values run high overall—though inconsistently in the minor details, which put Michelob Ultra bottles and German Luger pistols into a show set in 1975’s Vietnam—glitches which offset the impressive onstage appearances of a helicopter and a vintage Harley. And while Joshua Schulman’s lighting brought nightclubs, dream sequences, and gate-crashed embassies powerfully to life, the poor sound design and technical problems made the choral numbers mostly incomprehensible.

Like in Vietnam, the lengthy musical is one long set up for the events in the plot to tragically devastate Kim’s innocence at the end. Cline doesn’t ignore these political implications either—though to his credit, he touched upon this without resorting to heavy-handedness, deftly incorporating History Channel footage from that era into the songs to show the effects of a war-torn country—showing the general suffering that mirrors the individual tragedy in Kim’s story.

It’s hard to imagine a similar story today. Prostitution’s better monitored in Iraq, and more stringently enforced against in Islam, though I’m sure it won’t stop composers twenty years from competing to write the first drafts of Miss Bagdad. And while it’s tough to imagine anyone romanticizing current events in the Mideast at any time, I’m glad that this fall we had Cline’s production of Miss Saigon: a tragic, spectacularly performed story of love and devastation brought to life on the Media stage.

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