The Vietnam War that Never Goes Away
I finally had the chance to see the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon in New York last weekend and I walked into the theater wondering how the play, originally produced in 1991, would hold up. I should not have worried. The musical about the wild evacuation of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, with its famous helicopter on stage, and its troubled love triangle, is better than ever.
Will the Vietnam war ever go away? I do not think so, as the large crowd for the play at the Broadway Theater, on Broadway, suggests. We are still trying to figure out what went wrong, what went so terribly wrong and in so many places, in that Asian conflict that took the lives of so many Americans and sent home so many thousands of boys in wheelchairs and with missing limbs.
That is the twisted magic of Vietnam stories in drawing audiences. There were a number of them in the era from about 1980 through the mid-1990s, really good plays and movies, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, and then they stopped. The war started to fade into the memory of America as the years went by. Well, with his touching, thrilling and over-powering production, the war, and its hundreds of stories, triumphant and torturous, is back.
The plot of Miss Saigon, ably directed by Laurence Connor, and starring Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer and Lianah Sta Ana as the Vietnamese girl Kim, recently elected Miss Saigon, is engrossing and complicated. An American GI in Saigon in its last days, Chris, falls for Kim but loses her when he is evacuated in a helicopter in one of the great scenes in theater history (the special effects people not only land a realistic helicopter on stage, but send wind waves through the audience to duplicate the feel of the propeller blades – terrific). What happens to her in the sleazy world of backstreet Saigon, now all alone, since she has no friends, no money and is wanted for murder? What happens when Chris gets back home and gets married and, er, sort of forgets to tell his wife about Kim? (he may or may not have married Kim in a Vietnamese ceremony).
In the middle of these two lovers jumps the Engineer, a Saigon brothel owner and con man to rival any of his American counterparts in history. He is the ultimate greasy wheeler dealer, selling drugs, liquor, women and anything else you need. He somehow manages to flee the North Vietnamese army when the war ends and winds up in the drug dens of Bangkok, dancing and singing to a wonderful song about the American dream, sitting on the hood of a convertible as he wails away.
The men who wrote the play and its music – Claude Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. – were careful not to point the finger at the Americans, or anybody, for the Vietnam conflict. The war is ending as the drama begins and there are no villains (they leave the finger pointing up to the audience).
What they do produce is a moving show. It is not just a love story, but an exciting drama about the collapse of South Vietnam, and the fleeing of tens of thousands of American military people, many by helicopter (the loud whirring of the chopper blades opens the show and sets the scene). There are refugee lines, crowded streets, Ho Chi Minh’s soldiers, whorehouses, cabarets, back street apartments and always a sense of danger.
The history about the Vietnam war, and its victims, is riveting. The play starts with the evacuation and you see all those thousands of people trying to get through the gates at the American embassy, and on to those life-saving helicopters. The story of the American defeat is on target, as is the subplot of corrupt North Vietnamese officials and the corrupt soldiers under their control. The powerlessness of the Vietnamese people, no matter which government is in charge, is shown constantly.
The most biting historical moments, though, involve the kids. Act two begins with a meeting of an organization of Americans who are trying to raise money for the Vietnamese kids fathered by American soldiers. All those thousands of kids, and their abandoned moms, are victims of the war, too. and the musical’s writers show them as the casualties of war.
Director Connor gets wonderful performances from his stars. You may remember that back in 1991 there was a considerable controversy over the decision to cast British actor Jonathan Pryce as the Vietnamese con artist. That debate, over casting in Caucasian actors as the Vietnamese con man, later erupted over the years. Now, Filipino Jon Jon Briones has been cast and he is the perfect, and I mean perfect, choice. He is just downright evil, smarmy, duplicitous, untrustworthy and any other adjective you can find to describe his wretched character. You love him, though, because of Briones’ skillful performance. Colby Dezelick is sturdy as the GI Chris and Nicholas Christopher is superb as John. Christopher possesses a marvelous voice. Lianah Sta Ana brings down the house every time she finishes a song and her acting is impressive (Eva Noblezada plays the role on other days). They are joined by a large ensemble of solid performers.
The love triangle in the play, with its ups and downs, is based on that of the opera Madame Butterfly.
The music in the play is good, even though there are no hit songs. The music, sometimes sweet and slow and sometimes intense, helps to tell the story.
This was a perfect time to see Miss Saigon again, too, because of all of the Vietnam war reminder events taking place, often every day.
Vietnam vet medic James McCloughan was just awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Trump for his dramatic firefight rescue of ten men in the Vietnam War.
Stories have surfaced about the continued strife between Australia, that sent hundreds of soldiers into the Vietnam War, and their ally America, even after forty years.
President Trump just met with Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phue at the White House and announced talks for better trade deals between the two countries. Phue said he now hopes that Vietnam and the U.S. can be “better partners.”
Documentarian Ken Burns’ new ten-part series on the Vietnam War will come out soon.
The Vietnam War just will not go away.
PRODUCTION: Sets: Totie Driver, Matt Kinley and Adrian Vaux, Lighting: Bruno Poet, Projection: Luke Hall, Sound: Mick Potter, Costumes: Andreane Neofitou, Choreography: Bob Avian. The play is directed by Laurence Connor. It has an open-ended run.