Thursday, March 23, 2017

There May Be a Helicopter, But Newcomer Noblezada Truly Soars

Review: Miss Saigon

Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada in the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon

To answer the question that is probably on your mind: yes, the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon still features a real helicopter landing onstage during a particularly climatic scene. To be honest, despite the clever stagecraft used to accomplish the task, the helicopter's arrival is actually one of the less interesting moments in a overall very fine production. The anguished screams of the Vietnamese villagers left behind when the copter departs will stay with you longer, reaffirming that emotional truth is the lifeblood of this sweeping musical epic, not mechanical spectacle.

The plot of Miss Saigon, an updated retelling of Puccini's classic opera Madame Butterfly by the same songwriting team behind Les Miserables, chronicles the star crossed love affair of orphaned Vietnamese teen Kim and American GI Chris against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the eventual fall of Saigon. It is a setting rife with conflict and big emotions, although the script's eagerness to get to those emotions sometimes undercuts their believability. Chris and Kim's first meeting vacillates between a love and hate in a manner more appropriate to farce than epic drama, and several of the major power ballads arrive before we've had adequate time to invest in the characters singing them. Thankfully, the pacing improves tremendously once the lovers are separated about 30 minutes into the evening, making for a truly engrossing journey as they struggle to find their way back to one another after the US military pulls out of Vietnam.

In the original production, the role of Kim launched a then unknown 20-year-old named Lea Salonga to stardom. The chances of such an occurrence happening again would seem improbably, and yet the producers have once again struck gold casting their leading lady. From the moment 21-year-old Eva Noblezada enters during the show's opening number, she cuts a commanding figure despite her small frame, instantly establishing both Kim's vulnerability and inner strength without uttering a sound. And then she sings, demonstrating a vocal prowess and control that appears beyond her years, seamlessly singing every note of Claude-Michel Schonberg's complex score with extreme precision and searing emotional honesty. It is a masterful, star making portrayal that channels the best of her predecessor while leaving her own unique stamp on the role, and is the key to this production's overall success.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Noblezada's counterpart, Alistair Brammer as Chris. The British thespian certainly has the All-American good looks to play the object of Kim's affections, but despite an uncomfortably frequent amount of making out he lacks much chemistry with his costar. None of their shared scenes during the show's first act really sell the idea that these two are instantly attracted to one another, and it is actually easier to buy into their relationship when Kim and Chris are separated, with Noblezada's sensational performance and sincere longing grounding the romance. Brammer is certainly trying his hardest, which is part of the problem as the sheer amount of effort visible in his performance proves distracting.

The third of Miss Saigon's key roles is filled by Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, essentially Kim's pimp whose primary goal is to secure a visa and emigrate to America. It is a somewhat problematic role, given far more stagetime than is warranted by the character's only tangential relationship to Kim's storyline. Briones is quite good in the role, a tad hammy but not more than the production can bear. He also does an excellent job with his big 11 o'clock number "The American Dream," to the point where you almost forget that the song doesn't seem to have a purpose in the show other than providing a break from the heavy emotions of the second act. (It's tempting to assume the song is a critique of said dream, but if so then it undermines the sincere desire of practically every Vietnamese character to reach the US, a desire they keep through the final tableau.)

There are a few more standouts among the cast, particular Nicholas Christopher as another American GI named John. An imposing figure with a beautiful voice, Christopher delivers one of the show's most haunting ballads, a song about abandoned war orphans called "Bui Doi." Devin Ilaw is quite compelling as Kim's spurned fiance Thuy, and if Katie Rose Clark can't quite make sense of her extremely compacted character arc as Chris' wife her talent and innate likability go a long way towards solving the script issues involving her.

The production has been given a striking visual flare by set designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, whose talents extend much further than the aforementioned helicopter. The pair conjure the lived in squalor of a Vietnamese strip club, the seedy slums of Bangkok, and the imposing military might of Vietnam's new regime by using gorgeously detailed sets that are impressive without being distracting. The lighting design by Bruno Poet does an excellent job of establishing mood thanks to its bold use of color, and the contrast of the set's dull browns and greys with the bright reds and blues of the lights and Andreane Neofitou's costumes create a series of evocative images throughout the evening.

Director Laurence Connor makes excellent use of the set to create continually intriguing stage pictures, striking the right balance between the grand historical sweep and intimate character moments of the story. The musical staging by Bob Avian is also impressive, particularly the precisely choreographed, acrobatic filled "The Morning of the Dragon" which follows a 3 year time jump in the narrative. In fact, one could argue that this number is a far more effective and memorable bit of theatrical spectacle than the aforementioned helicopter, one that is able to support the story better by not being so technically involved.

Although heavily influenced by the original, Tony-winning production, this Saigon succeeds in making a show in danger of becoming a period piece feel fresh and relevant. It is at its strongest when it focuses on Kim, allowing Noblezada's performance to shine through and carry the day with the complexity and grace of actresses twice her age. The production occasionally falls victim to the bombast that defines many of these British mega musicals from the 1980s and 90s, particularly during the show's opening scenes, but it steadily improves in polish and emotional complexity as the night goes on until it becomes genuinely engrossing. Brammer's performance holds the show back from fully achieving the heights it so clearly aspires to, but in the end if Noblezada can fall in love with him nightly, then perhaps the rest of us can too.


  1. Many people are still angry that the original production of this show lost the Tony for Best Musical to The Will Rogers Follies. Is their anger correct? Would it have won if it were not for the whitewashing controversy surrounding Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer?

    1. I don't know Will Rogers Follies at all, so I can't say if it deserved to win or not. I will say that while I enjoy "Miss Saigon," there are enough problems with it as a show that I can it losing Best Musical to a better constructed show. And the Jonathan Pryce controversy certainly didn't help.

  2. I suppose that Broadway is casting Asian actors because somebody has to.