WHAT “Miss Saigon”
WHERE Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway
INFO $39-$155; 212-239-6200; saigonbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Robust and passionate revival
Well, the helicopter has landed again and it’s still very big. The mercenary Eurasian pimp known as The Engineer is bumping and grinding again on the hood of another Cadillac while singing a triumphantly insinuating two-step about lusting after and loathing “The American Dream.”
In other words, “Miss Saigon” is back at the Broadway Theatre where the update of “Madame Butterfly” set in Vietnam sparked unprecedented casting controversies in the overlooked Asian-American theater community in 1991 —and ran almost 10 years.
And yet, while all the greatest-hits sensations are robustly accounted for in director Laurence Connor’s revival, there are differences, too. Most obviously, many of the main roles and, especially, The Engineer — originally played by the dazzling white actor Jonathan Pryce — are brilliantly cast with powerhouse Asian-Americans. Jon-Jon Briones has a coarse, sleazy, scary opportunism — and some nifty dance moves — as the profiteering pimp who survives the French, the Americans, Ho Chi Minh and even the tourists because, as he sings, “Men will always be men” and want what he’s selling.
At least as significant, however, is the visceral passion between Kim, the orphan teen saved on her first night at the brothel, and Chris, the soldier who falls crazy in love with her. Eva Noblezada has an enormous, poignant strength and a piercing voice that can delicately float as confidently as it blasts. Alistair Brammer has the voice, the jaw and the muscles of a gentle American giant.
“Miss Saigon,” created by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil after “Les Miserables,” always has danced on the sliver of a line between exploitation and the show-biz equivalent of passionate commentary about exploitation. There is plenty of Asian female flesh but, this time, an almost equivalent chunk of American military beefcake and a welcome harder edge on the soldiers’ appetites.
Connor, who also directed the recent “Les Miz,” is a fine storyteller, and that story was a heartbreaker when Puccini composed it, too. Also, the mega-musical sets by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley don’t just give The Engineer a Cadillac for his “American Dream.” They have it arrive through the lewdly open mouth of Lady Liberty.
The story feels more urgent amid renewed refugee tragedies and our consciousness of the sex trade. And the narrative — helped by unusually graceful lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. — almost distract from the generic Euro-pop ballads and anthems that sound like many we’ve heard before. There is still no distinction between the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, with no explanation for the civil war, and the fake documentary showing real international orphans still strikes me as shameless.
But Gregory Ye, the little boy who played Kim’s child at the performance I saw, is preternaturally poised — and irresistible.