‘Miss Saigon' Whirls Back into Manhattan

The revival of Boublil and Schönberg’s sweeping musical “Miss Saigon” features two strong lead actors—one appealingly seedy, the other capable and tenacious. As when the musical first helicoptered onto Broadway in 1991, the famous hardware-heavy set deserves star billing, too.

“Miss Saigon” is a retelling of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” relocated to the end of the Vietnam War. The story tracks the tragic romance between an American G.I. (Alistair Brammer) and a virgin-ish bargirl (Eva Noblezada), whose fortunes are dictated by the resourceful “Engineer” (Jon Jon Briones).

The original production is remembered both for its innovative production design, which allowed a life-sized helicopter to “evacuate” G.I.s from the Saigon embassy, and a blistering controversy over the hiring of its lead actor, which many argued at the time was racially insensitive.

The “Miss Saigon” revival opening tonight at the Broadway Theatre, the same venue where it originally ran, arrives without a casting brouhaha, but with a similarly elaborate staging, which at times vies for attention with the talented cast. Is there a Tony category for Best Appearance by a Luxury Sedan Emitting Pheromones? Can there be?

Briones, who was an ensemble member in the original London cast, has played the Engineer in productions around the world and fully inhabits his character, a resourceful pimp eager to make his way to America. Briones is the focal point of this “Miss,” part-character and part-narrator, emceeing his way across Asia with gyrating hips and snarky asides.

The 11 o’clock number, “The American Dream,” gives the actor ample opportunity to showcase his talent, as he struts around a procession of satin-clad chorus members, finally climbing atop the hood of a Cadillac that has emerged from the gaping maw of a distorted Statue of Liberty, while hailing the power of the dollar.

A Trump punchline smack in the middle of this ode to America is distracting, though it was certainly a crowd-pleaser.

Noblezada is effective as Kim, a resilient showgirl forced upon G.I. Chris at the Engineer’s sleazy “Dreamland” sex parlor. Our sympathies for this Kim are consistently drawn out: We yearn for her to escape Saigon on the last flight out, and we’re won over by her maternal chemistry with the son she has had with Chris, unbeknownst to him.

Those elements of the production are ultimately more compelling than the scenes Noblezada shares with Brammer, who is fine as the naive and impetuous U.S. Marine, though as directed by Laurence Connor (“School of Rock” and the most recent “Les Miz”) is a bit too one-note and given to operatic gestures for my taste.

Devin Ilaw is appropriately sinister as Thuy, Kim’s cousin, who was long ago promised her hand in marriage and has become an officer in the North Vietnamese Army. Katie Rose Clarke is stalwart and forgiving as Ellen, who married Chris after he returned to the States and accepts his emotional baggage.

The second-act curtain raiser, “Bui Doi" (the musical is credited with popularizing the term for Amerasian children abandoned in Vietnam) is buoyed by video images of some of those kids, and it’s led confidently by Nicholas Christopher, as one of Chris’s fellow Marines.

The helicopter scene remains phenomenal. The chopper is loud, with a threatening rotor that forces gusts into the first rows of the orchestra. Other set pieces wow as well: The “Morning of the Dragon,” in the first act, boasts the giant golden head of Ho Chi Minh.

My issues with “Miss Saigon” aren’t deal-breakers: the heavy-handed orchestrations (Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg are also the creators of “Les Misérables”) sometimes unintentionally subvert the presence of the actors. And the initial bond between Kim and Chris isn’t sketched out enough, lessening the finale’s impact.

“Miss Saigon,” through Jan. 13, 2018 at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway. Tickets: $39-$165. Call 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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