A Journey Back to Saigon Worth Taking

Miss Saigon at the Signature Theatre

Thom Sesma plays the French-Vietnamese club owner who refers to himself as The Engineer in Miss Saigon. Photo: Christopher Mueller.

With the Secretary of State currently rattling sabers, theatergoers will find a return to an earlier scene of the humbling of American hubris both instructive and entertaining. Miss Saigon, staged by The Signature Theatre, a modern rock-infused re-imagining of Puccini's classic opera Madame Butterfly, is staged in the days just before the fall of Saigon.

The production actually begins when one enters the anteroom to the main stage. With the sounds of helicopters, fighters and falling bombs ringing in one's ears, the detritus of the American war machine litters the room. Torn parachutes are draped from the ceiling. A video plays disturbing footage of bombing strikes. The messy chaos is carried onward to the stage, which is littered with grimy leavings of war, where camouflage netting forms the curtain.

With the mood set, The musical narrates the story of two lovers, Chris, an American Marine sergeant, and Kim, a bar girl, who fall in love, marry and are separated in the chaos of the American withdrawal. The lovers first meet in a bar run by a pimp known as “The Engineer.” His forte is the organization of a very raunchy, nightly contest among his ladies for the title of “Miss Saigon,” which constitutes the first scene. Dancers gyrate in bikinis flirting outrageously with drunken Marines, while Kim, new to the bar, roams the room avoiding their grasp.

Kim is purchased by for Chris by his best friend, a fellow Embassy Marine, with the aim of diverting him from an increasingly dark depression brought on by his loss of faith in the American endeavor in Vietnam. Unexpectedly, Chris finds his heart's desire in Kim's arms. They marry in the hectic hours before the final pullout.

Newly found love faces immediate challenge as the Viet Cong soldier to whom Kim was betrothed by her family returns to Saigon to claim her. Played adroitly by Christopher Mueller, a Signature regular, he epitomizes the classic opera villain. After turning away the spurned suitor at gun point, the lovers wed in a touching scene.

The drama continues with the fall of the city. The pullout speeds up leaving Chris unable return to Kim as promised. With the Viet Cong in the streets, the production most dramatic scene unfolds as Kim and Chris remain separated by the fence at the American Embassy as the choppers lift the final refugees off the roof. Manhandled by his best friend into the helicopter, Chris departs leaving Kim abandoned and heartbroken at the gate.

The musical then skips ahead as The Engineer is summoned from a re-education camp by Kim's spurned fiancee, now a Commissar, who dispatches the former pimp on a mission to find Kim. Discovered in a pile of street-side ragamuffins, Kim is betrayed by the Engineer to the Commissar, who still seeks to compel their marriage. In a powerful scene, Kim stands up to the villain justifying her refusal with the admission that Chris had fathered her child.

The Commissar, recognizing the child as an obstacle to his marital plans, threatens to kill him. In the resulting confrontation, Kim reluctantly shoots her cousin and tormentor. The Engineer, seeing the half-American child as a ticket to a new life in the States, helps them flee to Thailand.

After learning of his son three years later, Chris and Ellen, his new American wife travel, to Thailand to meet him. Urged on by the Engineer, Kim goes to hotel in advance of their meeting in search of Chris. She encounters his wife and is shocked by Chris's failure to keep his faith.

In the meantime, Chris and his wife determine to leave the child with Kim in Thailand. It will be better, they rationalize, for his son to stay with his real mother. They do not want to shoulder the difficulties involved in bringing the two to the States.

Kim flees back to the refugee camp determined to send her son to America. When Chris and his wife come to meet the child, in a dramatic finale, she commits suicide forcing them to accept her son as their child.

The pacing and music of Miss Saigon are deliberately operatic. In a completely over-the-top fashion, the young lovers sing long duets about their newly found feelings. Diana Huey puts in a strong performance as Kim and is well supported by a cast that belts out the show's operatic numbers. Her rendition of I Still Believe was moving.

Erin Driscoll plays a very nuanced role as Ellen. In The Revelation, a powerful song, she struggles through an emotional minefield discovering first about Chris's son and then later coping with her husband long ago, unresolved love for Kim.

In The Movie In My Mind, a personal favorite, Gigi, another bar girl played by Cheryl Daro, sings a duet with Huey that relates their struggle to find emotional distance in their work as a prostitutes.

The real scene stealer is Thom Sesma, The Engineer. His rousing performance of If You Want to Die in Bed is a show stopper making Signature's voyage back to Saigon well worth the drive to Shirlington.

Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Choreographer Karma Camp
Music Director Gabe Mangiante
Scenic Design Adam Koch
Costume Design Frank Labovitz
Lighting Design Chris Le
Sound Design Matt Rowe

Miss Saigon has been extended thru September 29. Tickets are on sale at www.signature-theatre.org

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