'Miss Saigon' exploitation dazzling

June 14, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

On the most obvious level, the musical "Miss Saigon" is an updated version of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," set in Vietnam at the time of the fall of Saigon. On another level, however, the show -- at Washington's Kennedy Center for most of the summer -- is about the tinsel-thinness of the American dream.

On that level, the musical succeeds in a way its creators -- composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. -- may not have intended. And that's taking into account the glitziest and most sarcastic production number. Appropriately called "The American Dream," it features a Cadillac with which the emcee-like character of the Engineer engages in a simulated sex act.

It also takes into account the emotionally exploitative nature of "Madame Butterfly." A Western military man -- in "Miss Saigon," a GI -- falls in love with an Asian woman, here a Vietnamese bar girl. They marry in a pseudo ceremony, then he abandons her.

In the opera, the abandonment is intentional. In "Miss Saigon," it's a heartbreaking case of bad timing. In both cases, however, the Butterfly character -- called Kim in the musical -- ends up killing herself.

Boublil and Schonberg -- who also wrote "Les Miserables" -- soften the story by making the GI (Chris) sympathetic. As played by Peter Lockyer, he's as loyal as a Boy Scout. As Kim, Jennifer C. Paz is not only lovely, but her singing reflects the changes her character undergoes. When we meet Kim -- on her first scared, reluctant night as a prostitute -- Paz's voice has a sweet purity. Later in Bangkok, where she's seriously plying the trade to support the son Chris unknowingly fathered, her voice has a tougher edge.

Nor can the special effects -- concocted by director Nicholas Hytner and designer John Napier -- be credited with contributing to the dilution of the American dream. After all, the famed scene in which a helicopter lands on stage is pretty slick.

Even the hype generated by savvy British producer Cameron Mackintosh isn't entirely to blame. For one thing, hype is a producer's stock in trade. For another, when Mackintosh threatened to cancel the 1990 Broadway opening following controversy over casting a white actor as the Eurasian Engineer, it brought national attention to the issue of non-traditional casting. (In this production, the role is played by an Asian -- Raul Aranas -- but his is one of the few disappointing performances; he isn't sleazy enough.)

No, for this critic the moment when the show itself becomes the flip side of the American dream comes just after intermission in the song "Bui-Doi." As the lyrics explain, the title means "dust of life" -- a term used to describe the Amerasian orphans fathered by GIs.

The song has one of the most memorable melodies in the European pop opera-sounding score, and it is sung by one of the show's best performers, Charles E. Wallace. But neither he nor any of the fictitious characters -- including the tragic heroine -- can compete with the footage of the actual children that is projected on a screen behind him.

"Miss Saigon's" creators may have intended this footage as a gesture to raise social consciousness. And the producer has set up a Bui-Doi foundation to which he donates a percentage of profits. Nonetheless, the scene raises the ethical question of whether private, real-life tragedies belong in public entertainment spectacles.

Or then again, perhaps this is "Miss Saigon's" best and crassest proof of the exploitation of the American dream.

'MISS SAIGON'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 21

Tickets: $27.50-$65

Call: (800) 444-1324

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