War is hell. But sometimes, even within that nightmare, people can discover something pure and beautiful.
That's what happens with Chris and Kim in "Miss Saigon,'' the epic love story whose new national tour landed this week at Playhouse Square's State Theatre. Everything about this production is magnificently larger than life, from its dramatic love story to its massive score, gorgeous sets, bold staging and over-the-top sleaziness of the Engineer character.
Filipino actor Red Concepcion, who also played this crude, nasty pimp in the UK tour, makes it amply clear the Engineer is out for himself. But he never gives up, no matter how tenuous his chances of getting to America. In Concepcion's fantasy showstopper "The American Dream," he enables us to laugh at the character and his wild delusions.
In this story, which takes place mostly in 1975-1978 Saigon and Bangkok, orphaned Vietnamese girl Kim falls in love with G.I. Chris her first night working at the bar and brothel Dreamland. Their love is sparked at a time of great chaos, immediately before the fall of Saigon. The lovers are torn apart, and Kim struggles to survive for three years in her quest to reunite with Chris.
This musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil is for mature audiences only, due to profanity, sexual situations, misogynistic behavior and violence. The story kicks off as the American Marines party with Vietnamese bar girls in a scene whose unabashedly smutty choreography includes simulated sex.
All that leering and sleaziness is in great contrast to Chris (Anthony Festa), and Kim (Emily Bautista), as Chris fights to protect the shy 17-year-old from the start. Both of these performers have spectacular voices, as the love-struck Chris emotes in "Why God Why?" and they declare their love for one another in the gorgeous ballad "Sun and Moon."
Bautista brings an innocence and nobility to her role as the peasant Kim that defies any stereotypes of an Asian prostitute trying to use a G.I. to get to America. Her chemistry with the ardent Festa is beautiful. Later, Festa is also heartbreakingly believable as a desperate, agonizing, haunted veteran.
This sung-through show's lyrics are so dense, theatergoers will want to listen to the score ahead of time. It's impossible to catch it all but that won't stop viewers from being thoroughly swept up in this epic love story.
"Miss Saigon" features a powerful ensemble that works in overdrive, playing everything from bar girls to soldiers to refugees to fantasy dancers. Especially eerie are the Vietnamese soldiers with their militaristic choreography by Bob Avian in "The Morning of the Dragon."
It's been a long time since Cameron Mackintosh's "Miss Saigon" toured. The last Equity tour in the United States ran from 1995 to 2000. The current tour follows the musical's revival in London in 2014 and on Broadway in 2017-18.
Now, to the helicopter.
Mechanical difficulties with the show's famed helicopter — normally a flying fiberglass set piece that dominates the Saigon evacuation flashback — meant a backup plan with a large helicopter projection and lighting effects had to be used Wednesday night.
The copter functioned correctly on opening night Tuesday, according to Playhouse Square. But with just the projection Wednesday night, audiences never got to see Chris, unwilling to leave Kim, being forced into the helicopter after being punched by his friend John in "Kim's Nightmare."
That's a very important part of the "Miss Saigon" story that was lost Wednesday. But even so, this tour is magnificent.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.