REVIEW: ‘Miss Saigon’ may have been popular two decades ago but now past its prime

by ROB HUBBARD via Pioneer Press

October 9, 2013

By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press

There weren’t a lot of great new Broadway musicals surfacing in the early ’90s, so audiences settled for “Miss Saigon,” turning a poorly written piece of musical theater into a hit that spawned touring productions and storms of protest for its crude caricatures of Vietnamese people. For whatever reason, St. Paul’s Ordway Center has deemed it important enough to revive, teaming with three other U.S. theaters to mount a tour.

It opened at the Ordway on Tuesday, complete with the expected picketers outside. And the musical proved just as bad as I remembered it from seeing a touring production in the ’90s. It’s eye-rollingly heavy-handed, blunt enough to make you blush, and rarely displays any imagination in its music.

Is it a good production? In pace and energy, yes, as it flies by at mercifully breakneck speed. But it’s so bombastic as to leave you feeling as if you’ve been shouted at for the better part of three hours. Most of the leads turn up the emotional (and actual) volume to such a degree that even the most tender love ballad is belted and blared at you, full of overwrought imitation intensity. It’s as if they believe that this weak material might work if they just yell it at you.

The original source for “Miss Saigon” is Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera, “Madame Butterfly,” but it transports that tale of an American naval officer’s relationship with a young Japanese woman to mid-1970s Vietnam as American military personnel are preparing to evacuate. And it infuses the story with all the trappings of modern sex trafficking, with a minor character from the original opera expanded to become a cynical, opportunistic pimp with a heart of malleable plastic.

That character, the Engineer, is the one responsible for the most egregious generalizations, like “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs?” and using a lot of “we” pronouns while wielding a broad brush about the Vietnamese. The Americans suffer simplistic stereotyping, too.

Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil were fresh off the success of “Les Miserables” when they created this, but there’s no “I Dreamed a Dream” here, only repetitious recitatives, brash ballads and pounding rock numbers with little discernible melody. And it doesn’t have much in the way of dazzling stagecraft. The illusion of a helicopter landing and taking off created a buzz in the musical’s early days, but the one in the Ordway production is a pale imitation. Perhaps headlights in the audience’s eyes are intended to distract from that.

There’s some fine choreography by Baayork Lee and a smooth, charismatic performance from Orville Mendoza as the Engineer. But the couple at the story’s center never gets fleshed out enough to inspire interest, with Manna Nichols offering a Kim who seems fresh from an American mall, not a Vietnamese farm, and Charlie Brady unceasingly histrionic. Nkrumah Gatling and Meggie Cansler join the show-long shouting match as romantic lead Chris’ comrade and spouse.

No helicopter can airlift this musical out of its place among the weakest blockbusters to have graced the Broadway stage. Put that together with the fact that it upsets so many people, and you have to wonder what the Ordway was thinking in reviving it.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at

What: The Ordway Center’s production of “Miss Saigon”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

Tickets: $113-$26, available at 651-224-4222 or

Capsule: They don’t make them like this anymore. Thankfully.