There is a bit of a snake bitten vibe when it comes to Broadway San Jose’s hosting of the polarizing musical “Miss Saigon,” sticking around the South Bay through Sunday, Nov. 17th. Opening night was canceled due to “transportation delays of the show’s scenery,” according to a news release. And in the new opening night which took place a day later, a scene in the first act ended with a stage manager shouting “Actors, off the stage!”
After an impromptu intermission just before the real one because of some technical snafus, another stage manager came on the mic and said, “We’ve made a bit of a mess back here, so we’ll just be a few more minutes.”
If only the mess could have been contained to the backstage area, that would have been great.
“Miss Saigon” has a bit of an aging problem, a show that has been revived since the tour I saw back in 1997, premiering on Broadway in 1991 amidst a serious casting controversy.
Maybe the biggest issue of the show is how tone deaf it has become over the years.
For starters, consider this sequence of events. First of all, we are introduced to the young Kim (Emily Bautista), who is forced into prostitution and makes her debut at Dreamland, a Saigon bar and brothel. She is clearly out of her element, almost frozen as all the other girls grind and grind, and when they are done grinding, they grind some more. It’s a strange, over-sexualized stereotype of Asian women that comes to life, and it’s uncomfortable to watch.
For the first 15 minutes that the audience meets Kim, she is shoved, thrown, dry-humped, slapped and suffers every humiliation possible. But John (J. Daughtry) pays a pretty penny for her, considering virgins are at a premium, and gifts her to Chris (Anthony Festa). After an awkward slow dance, Kim implores Chris to take her far away from the bar.
So it’s off to bed they go. But for some odd reason, even though Chris tries to do the noble thing at first, he ends up going for it, and the two share an incredibly magical night together. Now our poor Chris is so conflicted. Why God, why did you have to send me someone like her today? I was kinda cool bouncing out of Vietnam soon, and then you do this to me? Really, God?
Oh kids, it gets better. The next morning, after Kim screams at Chris about all the trauma she’s been through, losing her parents and her village, Chris feels this is the perfect time to ask her out on a second date. It’s ok though, because he’s an American, and he can’t fail to do good.
It’s all so preposterous, because even though it’s Kim who spends the entire play suffering every indignity possible, we are forced to see things through Chris’ inner-torture and white male gaze. Never mind that he’s gonna head back to good ol’ US of A and move on with his life, which he does. Unlike Vietnam, the United States, he tells Kim, is a place where “your life will have worth.” I can’t make these asinine lyrics up.
Bautista is a huge talent and, in this production, does everything she can with the material she’s granted. Kim spends the entire production writhing on the ground, never looking at anyone, but looking up at everyone. One of her oddest alliances is the one she has with the slimy Engineer (Red Concepcion), who will stop at nothing to make a dollar on the backs of anyone.
The show is based on the 1904 Giacomo Puccini opera “Madame Butterfly,” and there are plenty who use the fact that the show is adapted as the reason why nothing is wrong with it. That’s absurd. Past material can be just as racist and preposterous as any other material. What needs to happen though is that creative people need to come up with new, fresh ways to share these problematic pieces with today’s audiences if that’s the art they want to create. But that is not what “Miss Saigon” does. If anything, director Laurence O’Connor’s staging goes over the top in some confounding ways.
What has made the show so problematic is that a piece created by French men named Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, who wrote the musical masterpiece “Les Miserables,” is built on damaging stereotypes of Asian men and over-sexualized Asian women, and this belief that an Asian woman’s life is valued less. Additionally, you get an odd sense that the creators seem to be saying, if the Vietnam War hadn’t gotten in the way, we would have had a pretty great love story.
At one point in the show, after another moment where Chris seems to screw up something else (He’s much more bumbling than I remember him to be), he flops himself into a chair, exasperated at his ill-conceived juggling of two wives and expresses his consternation, saying “Jesus Christ, what else can go wrong?”
Turns out, quite a bit.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Broadway San Jose presents the national tour of “Miss Saigon”
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr.
Book by Alain Boublil
The Word: We’ve passed the point where this show is relevant, if it ever was in the first place, and does more harm than good. Some strong principal performances can’t save this one.
Stars: 1/2 out of 5
Broadway San Jose
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA 95113
Through Nov. 17th
Tickets range from $43 – $228
For tickets, (800) 982-2787 or visit https://broadwaysanjose.com/