Miss This Saigon

Worse than Titanic yet still floating

Miss Saigon is a tragic love story set against the backdrop of the 1975 U.S. withdrawal from Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam under a communist regime. It's an obvious wound reopener for those who lived—and still live—through the experience, and you'd think it would be a natural for OC's Vietnamese community. But as Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Koehler wrote last week, the Orange County Performing Arts Center isn't directly marketing the mega-musical to the tens of thousands of Vietnamese émigrés who live here. There's good reason, of course—consider the March protests triggered by a Westminster video-shop owner who hung a poster of Ho Chi Minh in his window and the Vietnamese art exhibit that drew smaller crowds of anti-communist picketers outside the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana a few weeks later.

But what ought to worry the center aren't anti-communist mobs. No, the terrible possibility here is that pissed-off theatergoers will stampede through South Coast Metro to sack and pillage the center and pour salt over the earth at 600 Town Center Dr. in order to expunge from all human consciousness the memory of Miss Saigon.

This big-ticket ($41 to $66 for most seats), big-cast (48 performers), big-budget ($12 million to mount this 23-day run) musical is a big waste of time. It's boring, and the music for which it is inexplicably famous is utterly forgettable—finally answering the question about how many years and chimps it would take to pound out Hamlet. (Answer: we're still not sure, but the chimps got to Miss Saigon first.) More distressing than bad music and lyrics is the unsavory stink of American arrogance that lingers over the proceedings like the stench over a charnel house—which is quite surprising, considering the show was created by the French team that came up with the fabulous Les Miserables. Then again, they are French—need we say more?

I am gratefully and proudly in the most marginalized minority on this one. Judging by the great rolling waves of applause that thundered across the room at curtain call, one would have thought that Jesus Christ and John Lennon were in town. In fact, what we had just witnessed should give the people at Webster's a completely new definition for the word "overrated." Not since Rent whined, posed and emoted its way through Southern California have so many heaped so much on so little. At least Renthad a beat.

But, boy, does Miss Saigon look good. John Napier's set design is the apogee of 20th-century musical theater. The lights and set pieces (even if the famed helicopter seemed as clunky as Disney's robotic Mr. Lincoln and the towering statue of Ho Chi Minh looks more like a beatnik Vladimir Lenin) are impressive. There are plenty of fleshy dancers spanking their asses and spreading their legs to keep the needle on the Titillation Meter pinned to the high end. And, when not helplessly shackled by insipid ballads, the production—still based on Nicholas Hytner's initial staging—moves fluidly and powerfully.

All in all, it looks like the brightly polished, highly efficient machine that has played to more than 25 million people worldwide and grossed more than $1 billion since it opened in London in 1989.

And there's the rub. Miss Saigonis a show so in love with its own visual excess and commercial success that nothing else seems to matter. Of the 11 articles in the press kit, three are devoted to the show's technical wizardry and two trumpet its box-office success. The others profile the creative team, the daycare workers who look after the show's child actors, and the effect the play has had on Vietnam vets and Vietnamese-Americans. Nowhere in all this documentation about spectacle and epic scope is the aesthetic content of the show ever addressed.

Because there isn't any. There isn't any art to this thing—besides the one holy and incontrovertible art of our age: the art of getting a big return on your investment. Nor is there any real heart or soul or passion or interesting words or music. Just an immaculately dressed production that demands complete and utter capitulation on the part of the audience. This is the Krispy Kreme of theatrical events.

It is almost impossible to plumb the depths of Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil's inane lyrics. The rhyme scheme is less Rodgers and Hammerstein than Hallmark greeting card, with little thought given to character development or plot progression. Claude-Michel Schonberg's score is noteworthy in one respect: I can't remember one note of the music, and it has been less than 24 hours since I walked out of the theater.

Compounding the difficulties is the fact that there is no dialogue in this show that isn't sung. It's operatic in that sense, and that means—besides the fact that it is soooooo goddamn annoying to sit in a theater for nearly three hours and hear every snippet of conversation sung—there is no time for relationships to be established. In the play's first five minutes, we are asked to completely buy into the story of Chris (the cipher-like Greg Stone), an American GI, and Kim (a solid Mika Nishida), a runaway virgin fleeing a forced marriage. They meet in a Saigon brothel run by the crafty, cynical Engineer (an excellent Joseph Anthony Foronda). Kim and Chris fall in love and swear eternal devotion to each other. It's an awful lot to believe so early for characters we know nothing about.

Things aren't easy for Kim and Chris, either. He loses her in the frantic closing moments of the Marine withdrawal from the U.S. embassy in Saigon—he's forced into the helicopter, and Kim is left behind. Chris returns home, doesn't speak for a year, and then, in a rather remarkable recovery, meets someone else, falls in love and gets married.

Meanwhile, back at the reeducation ranch, Kim's life sucks. She's got a kid, who is Chris', and is keeping him hidden, from whom we're never quite sure. Her cousin, to whom she is betrothed, finds her after three years and demands that she marry him. She refuses—remember, she's bumped uglies with an American and thus has a higher purpose than fidelity to her father's wishes—and shoots him. With the help of the Engineer, Kim and her son flee to Bangkok, where they hope they can use her meal ticket—that is, her half-American son—to obtain U.S. visas.

By this time, Chris has discovered he has a child. And for the first time in this play, the guy finally does the right thing and decides to fly to Bangkok to meet his offspring. But the reason leads back to the strain of arrogance in this play: the kid is half-American, and, thus, a real American has a duty to save him, unlike the hundreds of thousands of pure-blood Vietnamese children who are also victims of war. Written by French people about Americans in Vietnam, it's painfully obvious that colonial bias lives on long after the colony is gone.

Speaking of the French, the Engineer gets a most fitting line in this play. He says he learned something very important from the French—how to cover up a stench: you just lay on the perfume. And there is more cloying perfume surrounding Miss Saigon than just about any musical to date. And while it's apparently quite easy to get intoxicated by the stuff, the rotten core of this show—the most glaring and grating example of late-20th-century-art-as-commercial-spectacle since the movie Titanic—is quite perceptible for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Miss Saigon at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2122. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Through Sept. 25. $41-$66; tickets for partial-view seating are $16-$26; $20 student rush tickets available one hour prior to performance, except on Saturday nights.

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