Can 'Miss Saigon' be saved? Two British shows disagree.

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Can 'Miss Saigon' be saved? Two British shows disagree.
In a photo provided by Johan Persson shows, Shanay Holmes and Christian Maynard in “Miss Saigon.” A revival reimagines the polarizing musical for the 21st century while a new show offers a bawdy riposte. (Johan Persson via The New York Times)

by Houman Barekat

SHEFFIELD.- “Miss Saigon” is back and so, inevitably, is the surrounding discourse.

Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical melodrama about an ill-fated romance between a Vietnamese sex worker and an American GI during the Vietnam War has polarized opinion ever since it was first staged in 1989. In that original West End run, Jonathan Pryce donned yellowface to play a mixed-race pimp, and the show’s critics have continued to raise concerns about its portrayal of East Asian people, particularly its tawdry sexualization of Vietnamese women.

So not everyone was pleased when the Crucible Theater in Sheffield, England, announced it would stage a new production of “Miss Saigon” this summer. A British East and Southeast Asian theater troupe pulled their own show from the playhouse in protest, saying the musical peddled “damaging tropes, misogyny and racism.”

The boycott may have been unwarranted, however, as this new production — directed by Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau under the auspices of acclaimed producer Cameron Mackintosh, and running through Aug. 19 — sets out to address those long-standing criticisms, reimagining the musical in line with 21st-century liberal sensibilities.

The outline of the story, heavily inspired by Puccini’s 1904 opera “Madama Butterfly,” is largely unchanged. Chris (a compellingly lugubrious Christian Maynard) meets Kim (Jessica Lee) in a brothel and they fall in love, but their affair ends abruptly when the Americans withdraw from Saigon. Three years later, Chris, now married to an American woman, learns that he has a young son by Kim. Kim tragically takes her own life in order to ensure her child will be raised by his father in the United States, and thus have a better life than she can provide for him.

But the play’s look and feel have changed. For starters, there’s the casting: The hitherto male role of the Engineer, the scheming pimp whose machinations provide much of the story’s motive force, is here played with a suitably brash, pantomimic vitality by Joanna Ampil, who played Kim in two 1990s runs at London’s Theater Royal Drury Lane; Chris and his wife, Ellen (Shanay Holmes), are played by Black, rather than white, actors. While this neatly sidesteps some of the baggage associated with Chris being a “white savior,” it does feel a little gimmicky, since what really matters to the plot is his American passport.

More significantly, Ben Stones’ splendid set design eschews the hackneyed visual imagery associated with this show. The action plays out around an imposing industrial staircase set against a large, dark gray metal screen cut with a geometric pattern, a forbidding backdrop evoking a decidedly unsentimental urban landscape, which is a far cry from the idyllic visions of rural bamboo huts often seen in “Miss Saigon” productions.

Lee excels as Kim, rendering her with a dignified stoicism that imbues her sorrowful ballads with pathos — despite the music being objectively corny. Neither she nor her supporting ensemble in the brothel are overtly sexualized: they are just people, doing what they must to survive.

The directors Hastie and Lau have argued the case for “reshaping and transforming” problematic narratives rather than doing away with them entirely, and with some tweaks to the script, made with Schönberg’s blessing, they have succeeded in creating a relatively tasteful and humane version of this perennially contentious musical.

Yet it’s hard to shake the suspicion that Orientalist kitsch was integral to the shows’ commercial appeal. Remove the defamiliarizing frisson of the exotic and you have, essentially, a love triangle with an immigration paperwork angle. It’s still a heart-rending tale, but is it as much of a spectacle?

Forty miles down the road, audiences in Manchester have been enjoying “Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play,” which runs at the the Royal Exchange Theater through Saturday as part of the Manchester International Festival before transferring to London’s Young Vic in September, and is every bit as irreverent as its title suggests.

Written by New York-based dramatist Kimber Lee and directed by Roy Alexander Weise, it features a succession of mordant sendups of the “Madama Butterfly” and “Miss Saigon” narrative arc, in which several iterations of the Kim character (Mei Mac) repeatedly endure the same ill-treatment at the hands of a would-be white savior (Tom Weston-Jones) while a narrator (Rochelle Rose) provides knowingly wry commentary.

The series of sketches begin in 1906 (the year “Madama Butterfly” premiered in New York) and ends in mid-’70s Vietnam (the setting for “Miss Saigon”), with pop-cultural touchstones along the way including the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” and the TV series “M*A*S*H.”

It’s a bawdy and playful pastiche, with the Orientalist elements hammed up for comic effect, in Kim’s ludicrously doll-like passivity and the generic “hut-like dwelling” in which the romance unfolds: “The whole place looks like Pier 1 and Cost Plus had a three-way with Ikea and this hut is their bastard mixed-race child,” the narrator quips.

Kim’s American lover speaks to her in a nonsensical language made up of assorted Asian words — bulgogi, sashimi, onigiri — which the narrator translates into English, a pointed callback to the use of gibberish in lieu of Vietnamese in productions of “Miss Saigon” from the 1990s.

Things take an autofictional turn when the setting shifts to a dinner party in present-day New York. Kim is now a struggling playwright burdened by a sense of responsibility to push back against decades of racially offensive caricatures on stage and screen. At this point the fun fizzles out somewhat, giving way to essayistic soul-searching.

Kim’s mother, Rosie (Lourdes Faberes), delivers an impassioned monologue on behalf of first-generation immigrants, explaining that insensitive representations were something they had to take in their stride. She would like her daughter to be less zealous, and just live her life. A friend implores Kim to make peace with the past, reminding her that American society has come a long way: “We could stop here. We could stay here. It’s not so bad, is it?”

It’s a vibrant, funny and intelligent show, but that loss of momentum in the latter stages exposes the limitations of activist theater in which the primary creative impulse is corrective: Once you’ve made your point, there is nowhere left to go.

In this regard, “Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play” shares similarities with the new “Miss Saigon,” a show whose moral and aesthetic merit derives primarily from what it omits — the offensive caricature, the crass fetishism — rather than what it contains.

These productions function as valuable cultural palate cleansers. But the drive to sanitize problematic content is, ultimately, a matter of commercial self-preservation: Juggernaut brands like “Miss Saigon” are too lucrative to be allowed to die.

Having outlived its relevance, the musical is doomed to an afterlife of well-meaning but slightly anodyne remakes as it slowly, inexorably fades into oblivion.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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