The destructive consequences of war are present throughout the ages: destruction of entire communities, sex trafficking, refugees, helpless children and more. Women and children always suffer the brunt of these conflicts.
The revival of Miss Saigon, set in the closing days of the Vietnam War, is a shock to the system. It doesn’t mince words (including the profane) or shy away from images of the most disgusting characteristics of humanity. It is clear that war brings wholesale anguish and the collateral damage reaches far and wide. The same outcome of evil is seen today in wars and conflicts in Syria, Central Africa, the Mexican Drug war and elsewhere around the world. The aftermath of this evil is especially borne by women and children.
In Miss Saigon, playing at Kansas City’s Music Hall through December 15, we see Kim, orphaned and 17 years old, finding her way to Saigon after her family is killed and her village destroyed though it is unclear if it is at the hands of Americans or the Communist North Vietnamese.
Quickly trafficked into prostitution by a Vietnamese brothel owner “The Enginer” (Red Conception), Kim (Emily Bustista) is “purchased” for American GI Chris by his buddy. The two eventually fall in love and marry in a Vietnamese ceremony. But Chris (Anthony Festa) is able to leave and returns to the US when Saigon falls though he is separated from Kim. In the US, Chris marries Ellen (Ellie Fishman) and begins a life although he is haunted by Kim and the turmoil that left her behind as the communists advanced.
Kim finds herself pregnant and raises the boy the best she can and believes that Chris will return to save her. Meanwhile Chris and Ellen become aware of the child and are presented with yet another ethical dilemma as a result of Chris’ earlier ethical and moral lapse.
Based loosely on the musical Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon is the 13th longest running Broadway show. The original musical opened in 1989 and will feel familiar. It was brought to life by creators, Claude-Michael Schonberg and Alain Boublil, who also is associated with Les Miserable. Cameron Mackintosh, who originally brought Miss Saigon to the stage, also produced Les Miserables. Miss Saigon received three Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, and three Outer Critics Circle Awards. The latest revival opened in London in 2014 with a new song, “Maybe.”
Miss Saigon is a gritty production that deals with issues such as greed, abuse, sacrifice and love in a war that touched five American presidencies and changed our nation forever. Creators Schonberg and Boublil developed it as a response to what they perceived as American imperialism and did not hold back in their disdain for American values or culture. Or perhaps they were calling us back to the values upon which the nation was created.
While 40 years has elapsed since it first appeared as a screed against American involvement in Vietnam, many of the subtle swipes of the original message remain. It’s not a production that makes you proud to be an American. As such, Miss Saigon is often difficult to watch, with its soaring ballads and intricate sets that include a flying UH-1H “Huey” helicopter that relives the iconic moment U.S forces fled the country.
The story line begins with a moral compass that is spinning out of control. Except for both Kim (who will protect her young son at any cost) and the Ellen (who’s reluctant instinct is to do right in light of the past sins of her husband), the other characters elicit little empathy on the part of the viewer. In light of the #MeToo movement, and as the mother of two daughters, Chris’s past actions are difficult to forgive even when he atones for his sins years later.
That compass is never unwavering as it points to the sacrifice of a mother towards her child. The sacrifice required when loving another and being married to someone with tremendous baggage and demons brought on by the experience of war. Yet, too, the sacrifice of GI’s serving in the harsh realities of war and what was expected of them when no moral guardrails were provided in the theater of combat is explored.
Other themes addressed include the South Vietnamese who, at any cost, longed to be part of the American dream. It’s a sentiment held by millions around the world today.
But those who want to be a part of American culture are also aware of the excessiveness and vanity often found in its worst aspects. How will the 50,000 children born to the Vietnamese women and American GI during the Vietnam War be cared for? How do refugees carve out a life after being misplaced?
Emily Bustista as Kim delivers an outstanding performance and the audience feels her desperation in their stomach–hopefulness, determination and willingness to sacrifice with her vocals reinforcing her raw emotions. Red Concepcion portrays The Engineer – a sleazy, criminal pimp, that Concepcion makes easy to hate though the role is strangely written comedically.
The production is definitely not suitable for younger audience as language and scenes address extremely mature subject matter. Miss Saigon portrays all that is wrong with humanity but with true love, unlike most movies and theatrical productions, unable to overcome our sins.
Miss Saigon continues through Dec. 15. Tickets can be purchased online at Ticketmaster.com , by phone at 800.745.3000 and at the Music Hall box office, 301 W 13th St. Kansas City, MO 64105, or by phone at 800.745.3000.
–Anita Widaman | Entertainment Editor