The “gadzooks!” arrival of the helicopter isn’t the only way in which this tale of love, betrayal and sacrifice in the last days of the Vietnam War summons the gaslight era. Inspired by “Madama Butterfly,” Puccini’s beloved opera from 1904 — which was based on a 1900 play, taken from an 1898 short story — “Miss Saigon” is as mechanically melodramatic as any theatrical potboiler from the early 20th century.
A virtuous maiden driven to murder and stalked through the night by a vengeful army, maternal love in extremis, a demon ghost and a handsome hero who, believing his One True Love is gone, has Married Another — these are just some of the elements that inform the locomotive plot of “Miss Saigon,” a creation of those mavens of grand popera Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg.
It’s not as if such stories don’t still have the power to stir suspense and tears. But this eventful, sung-through production out of London, directed by Laurence Connor, feels about as affecting as a historical diorama, albeit a lavishly appointed one. (The lurid postcard set is by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, from a “design concept” by Adrian Vaux.)
This despite the hard and dedicated work of its earnest cast, which includes a slithery Jon Jon Briones as an enterprising Vietnamese pimp, a dewy Eva Noblezada as a heroic country girl and Alistair Brammer as the American soldier who loves and leaves her. Though it sets off inevitable topical echoes with its tableau of asylum-seeking refugees, the show still mostly comes across as singing scenery.
That certainly wasn’t the impression of critics when “Miss Saigon” first came to Broadway. Musical fans had been whipped into a froth of conflicted anticipation by the latest from the team that gave us the barricade-storming “Les Misérables.”
The accounts from London, where the show opened in 1989, emphasized the opulence of the staging, the lushness of the score and a performance that seemed destined to be the stuff of legend. That was by Jonathan Pryce, hitherto known as a British character actor of the eccentric stripe, who was playing the Engineer, a vicious and ambitious denizen of Saigon’s underbelly and the show’s liveliest figure.
The problem was that Mr. Pryce was white; his character was Eurasian. The question of whether he had the right to play the part, when roles for Asian actors in Western theater were scarce, led to furious debate, interventions from Actors’ Equity and the show’s (temporary) cancellation by its producer, who then as now was Cameron Mackintosh.
When “Miss Saigon” finally opened in New York, Mr. Pryce was not only still standing; he was also galvanizing. His grotesque, stage-hijacking Engineer came across as the flaming, smoking soul of corrupt capitalism, rather in the mold of another uneasy but immortal cultural stereotype, Charles Dickens’s Fagin.
Even if you objected to Mr. Pryce’s presence on political grounds, there was no way you could keep your eyes off him. The same cannot be said of Mr. Briones, the likable and undeniably talented Asian actor dancing in Mr. Pryce’s oversized shoe prints.
Mr. Briones gives a far more realistic performance than Mr. Pryce did. This Engineer, who runs the Saigon brothel where the show’s leading lovers meet, is a human cockroach, a slippery survivor of poverty, wars and Communist rehabilitation camps.
He is equally contemptible and charming, with appropriately fluid body language that serves him well in his solos of survival and ambition, which are the musical’s most memorable numbers. But the Engineer now comes across less as the show’s all-pervading, appallingly amoral essence than as a piquant supporting player.
His scaled-down presence reconfigures the production’s proportions. If you don’t count the helicopter — and the atmospheric set (with period costumes by Andreane Neofitou), ravishingly lighted by Bruno Poet — the show’s center now belongs to its distressed lovers, Kim (Ms. Noblezada), a 17-year-old from the provinces working in a Saigon den of vice, and Chris (Mr. Brammer), as the American G.I. who promises to take her away from all this.
Ms. Noblezada emanates an appropriate open vulnerability, while Mr. Brammer is handsomely ambivalent and stalwart. But they’re hemmed in by a score that reduces them to love-struck archetypes, and their singing voices bring to mind the sweet, clingy stickiness of teen radio idols. (As Chris’s blond American wife, Katie Rose Clarke is in the same key.)
Nicholas Christopher as Chris’s best friend and Rachelle Ann Go as a whore on the move have a bit more individuality. Devin Ilaw, as Kim’s nasty betrothed, is the show’s strongest singer, and his talent survives even an echo chamber effect for his final appearance.
Bob Avian’s choreography consists mostly of hoochie-coochie moves (for the prostitutes) and acrobatics-punctuated martial pageantry (for the Ho Chi Minh City sequences). I might have enjoyed the electronically pumped-up score more if I hadn’t kept translating its numbers into fresher-sounding songs I remembered from “Les Misérables.”
Contemporary interpolations for this version of “Miss Saigon” include a comic Mormon (surely a nod to “The Book of Mormon” a few blocks away) in a Bangkok street scene, and a line that isn’t in the script, but which brought down the house when the Engineer interjected it into his showstopping, Bob Fosse-style fantasy number “The American Dream.”
“Make America great again!” he crowed. The applause and cheers that followed were even louder than those that greeted the big white Cadillac featured in the same number and, yes, even louder than the reception for the helicopter.