Given its original decade on Broadway and the passion its fans have for “Miss Saigon,” criticism is as pointless as it is effete. Rather, the revival of the 1989 blockbuster now at the Broadway Theatre, as with the current production of “Cats” and the recent return of “Les Misérables,” provides an opportunity to appreciate the power of popular entertainment financially and, to no lesser degree, artistically. The fact of the matter is that while some shows are struggling, “Miss Saigon” is currently packing the house.
Before the advent of movies — so, roughly from the 12th century BCE to the last century or so — the theater was where people went for entertainment. Even the Greeks at Epidaurus (in a theater, by the way, dwarfing the largest Broadway house by many thousands of seats) knew the fundamental rule of showbiz: Please the masses. For the Greeks’ predominantly illiterate audiences, three theatrical rules applied: accessible and recognizable characters, dramatic situations, and spectacle. All these years later, those elements still work.
And “Miss Saigon” is the proof. With its soaring, operatic score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and its “Madame Butterfly”-inspired book by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alan Boubil, the show is largely a series of set pieces that tell the story of a young American soldier, Chris, in 1975 Vietnam, Kim, the local woman he loves and by whom he fathers a child, their grief as they are torn apart, and their tragedy as Kim sacrifices herself so her son can have a better life. It pushes all the buttons.
No matter how sophisticated we may think ourselves, there is something elemental and human that gives this story its power. Noël Coward was being arch when a character in his “Private Lives” says, “Strange how potent cheap music is,” but his point was no matter how above it all we see ourselves, none of us is immune to basic emotional triggers. In fact, we seek them in entertainment. As Sondheim wrote in “The Frogs,” “Eventually we’ll get to the catharsis and depart.”
This new production hits all the marks. Directed by Laurence Connor, the show retains the monumental scale of the original. Alistair Brammer as Chris sings the role powerfully and acts quite well. The character is not complex, but Brammer imbues him with passion, a good man amidst chaos and destruction. Eva Noblezada is excellent as Kim, with a clear, strong voice. Connor’s direction underscores that Kim and Chris are outsiders in Saigon’s world. Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer brings a humanity and dimension to a role that has previously been more of a caricature.
It may be a trick of memory, but the original production coming a mere 14 years after the events portrayed seemed more harrowing than this revival. Still, for fans of the show, this will be a very welcome return, and those new to it will inevitably be swept up into a timeless story of tragic love.
With “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire,” David Byrne solidifies his position as a new and exciting voice in musical theater. Coming on the heels of the magnificent “Here Lies Love,” the new show is also the story of a strong woman, an historical figure up against seemingly insurmountable odds who is, in large measure, the author of her own tragedy.
Whereas “Here Lies Love” – a tale of Imelda Marcos – was an immersive experience that swirled around the audience who stood throughout, “Joan of Arc” is staged more traditionally, but like its predecessor is not bound by the traditional constructs of musical theater. Indeed, “Joan of Arc” is more a classic oratorio than a traditional show, and even its religious theme is consistent with that form.
With this second show, it’s now possible to hear Byrne’s style more definitively, and it remains innovative, harmonically sophisticated, and exciting. Joan’s journey from visionary child to martyred woman is underscored by music that becomes more intense as the story progresses. Dark as this tale of deception, political maneuvering, and fear is, as with “Here Lies Love,” the final song offers a hope for healing.
Directed by Alex Timbers, the show has the feel of a Medieval Mystery Play, which is appropriate considering the subject matter and the time. Yet it’s doubtful that a 15th century director would come up with some of the astonishingly beautiful images Timbers achieves with just a handful of actors, some flags, lighting, and a rotating set of stairs that is the ingenious design of Christopher Barreca.
The company is equally extraordinary. An all-male ensemble takes on the various roles of warriors, royalty, members of the court, and religious figures. Individually, each is excellent, notably Sean Allan Krill as the bishop who seems to want to save Joan, Adam Perry as the Priest, and Kyle Selig as the Dauphin. Together, they deliver some of the best choral singing you’ll hear in New York right now, both in terms of tone and technique.
The only other woman besides Joan in the company is her mother Isabelle, played with expansive heart and clear intention by Jody Gelb. At the center of the piece is Jo Lampert as Joan, and she is a revelation. Her versatility and power as a singer are matched by the fiery ferocity she gives the saint-in-the-making. Lampert’s diminutive size amid the ensemble’s hunky men provides the ideal physical expression of Joan’s fervor. It’s a bravura performance that, like the rest of this sometimes challenging, yet consistently thrilling show, will burn in your memory as a highlight of the season.
MISS SAIGON | Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at W. 53rd St. | Mon., Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. | $39-$165 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 40 mins., with intermission
JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE | The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Pl. | Through Apr. 30: Tue.-Sun. at 8:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $90-$120 at publictheater.org or 212-967-7555; TodayTix lottery: $20
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