Miss Saigon Looking past the negatives
Miss Saigon still draws the crowds

by John Hall
I had the opportunity to see Miss Saigon at the Wang Centre in Boston during the summer of '93. Unfortunately, events transpired against me, and I missed the production. Since that time, I have heard many people whose opinions I respect say the same things to me about Miss Saigon: "Good acting, bad songs", "Intense mood, not sure if I liked it", and "Wonderful sets, but, in the end, not very memorable". If all of these are true, I thought, why is it still so popular? I therefore made it a point to catch a performance at the Broadway Theatre in New York the last week of January.
The original cast of Miss Saigon has long past moved on to other projects, and it is sufficient to say that the current cast is able to hold its own on stage. Nonetheless, the acting in the first act can only be described as wooden and hollow compared to the brilliance of the second act. The musical numbers also follow this pattern; those of the second act are vibrant and engaging (especially "My American Dream"), while the first act's numbers are flat and lack any real energy. Thus, by the end of the play, I was confused; had I really enjoyed what I had just experienced? From the snippets of conversation I was picking up around me, other members of the audience felt as I did. Once again, I found myself faced with the question, "In the face of all the negative reviews of Miss Saigon, why is the play still having sold-out performances?"
My first thought as to the popularity of the show was that perhaps the second act was enough to carry the play. It is true that Act Two left a very strong impression on the audience members sitting around me, and I might even recommend Miss Saigon solely on the basis of the second act to those of my friends who are absolutely addicted to Broadway. However, I do not know of many people who would willingly sit through an hour or so of lifeless acting and tiresome musical numbers just to see the dazzle of the second act, which is actually shorter in duration than the first. Therefore, I could not accept this as the reason so many people crowd the theatre at show time.
I also pondered over the story line of Miss Saigon, thinking that its strengths might actually make the rest of the play's flaws unimportant. I quickly realized, though, that this was patently untrue. The heart of the story is the love that blooms between Chris, an American GI, and Kim, a Vietnamese prostitute, during the final three weeks before the American withdrawal from Saigon. The basis for this love, though, is given not more than 10 minutes of stage time in Act One! Essentially, Chris and Kim sleep together and awaken the next morning completely devoted to one another. Thus, their love is unbelieveable from its inception, which hinders the audience's ability to accept it, even when the feelings between Chris and Kim are better explored in the second act.
At this point, I felt there was nowhere to turn. If the heart of the entire play was not even worth regarding, what other element of the production could wield enough power to draw in audience after audience? Finally, I realized that I had not considered a few things even more basic than those I had previously examined - the characters within the story and the settings which bind them all together. In fact, the characters and their settings share something even more elementary than they themselves - reality. All of the characters, no matter how badly they are portrayed by some of the actors, are real. They breathe, walk, talk, laugh, love, and die on the stage that is a mirror-image of our world. Some fall in love, while some languish and wallow in gluttony and greed. In the end, though, it is the fact that all of them have the capacity to dream and hope that grants them the priviledge of being called real. However, the tones and moods which color their actions all come from the settings the characters dwell in, and these, too, are real. The chaos of war, the glittery facades covering the moral decay of Saigon and Bangkok, and the rigid, mindless parade of fanaticism are all major settings which dominate the stage. The spectre of American involvement in Vietnam binds it all together, and as such, it is difficult to ignore. Nonetheless, it is the deceptively simple back rooms and hotels which dominate the life of the characters, and in which all that is true in the play takes place. This, then, is what draws people into Miss Saigon. Life is on stage, and, like the people we know, the characters are only trying to make their way through the obstacles placed in front of them the best they can.
Therefore, despite the many flaws in the play, and a first act that is badly done, Miss Saigon still attracts theatre-goers. In my final analysis, I would have to say that I did enjoy the play, but it takes time to put the entire experience in perspective, for, like life, Miss Saigon can be slow and tiresome. However, if you can look past the negatives, the taste of life this play provides is truly worth the ordeal.
Miss Saigon is currently playing at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway (the corner of Broadway and 53rd), NYC. (212) 239-6200. Call the Broadway Line at (212) 563-2929 for show times and more information.
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