REVIEW: Miss Saigon at the Ordway

by JOHN OLIVE via How Was the Show?

October 8, 2013

Why do we go to the theater?

For the acting. Actors amaze and thrill us with their uncanny ability to become something else, to overcome the pain and sorrow of their existence. To triumph, always, over the circumstances of their lives (even if this triumph means death). No other artists do this so well and thus theater-lovers are compelled to spend as much time as possible in the presence of actors. Plays are important to be sure, ditto good design, intelligent direction. The added value of powerful music. But the essence of theater lies in the actors.

Two boards and a passion, that’s all we need. Yes? Good actors can do the phone book. Sure.

Or so I always believed until I saw the dispiriting Miss Saigon (at the Ordway, through Oct 13). Miss Saigon, inspired by Giacomo Puccini‘s incomparable/insipid (depending on your point of view) opera Madama Butterfly is set in Vietnam in 1975. GI Chris falls in love (after one night!) with hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Kim. He and Kim produce a son. Then Chris goes home and marries the noble Ellen. They locate Kim (in Thailand). At the end, Kim, rather than raise her son in Asia, commits suicide. She dies in Chris’s arms. “Noooooooooo!” he howls as the curtain falls. Yikes.

I tried to see beyond the play, to enjoy the performances. And, indeed, the actors are terrific: Manna Nichols as Kim; Charlie Brady as Chris; Maggie Cansler as Ellen; Nkrumah Gatling as John (the only truly likable character) and (especially) Orville Mendoza as the Engineer. The Engineer is odious and despicable, a pimp, then a communist lickspittle, then a pimp again (now in Bangkok). But he is actively and creatively trying to better himself and is the only really multi-dimensional character Miss Saigon has. I seized on him.

Moreover, everyone can sing gorgeously and the music, by the accomplished (Les Mis) Claude-Michel Schönberg with excellent help from lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. is quite good.

But Miss Saigon made enjoying all this talent impossible. There is no escaping the fact that the story these artists serve is poisonous. The Asian characters are sexualized and trivialized: whores, pimps, mindless politicos, killers, nasty pieces of work all. Other characters are horny GIs, horny sex tourists. Or mindless airheads, johns who fall in love with hookers after a single encounter. As subject matter the Vietnam War is a minefield and Miss Saigon triggers every one.

I won’t bore you with a recitation of all the aspects of Miss Saigon‘s denigration of Asian culture. Rather, I would refer you to David Mura’s passionate and intelligent online essay in Opine Season.

Of course I was aware that Miss Saigon was the source of great controversy but a large part of me said, “Gosh, it can’t be that bad. Can it?” Well, it can, and it’s a shame that so much talent and so many resources have been expended to serve this play. I’m glad I saw Miss Saigon; I’ll never go again.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

John Olive is a widely produced and award-winning playwright, a screenwriter, a novelist and essayist, and a skilled and popular teacher. He is a founding member of the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America, Inc. He currently teaches at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis where he lives with his wife Mary and their son Michael.