Theater Review: Walnut Street Theatre’s “Miss Saigon”

The good news: The helicopter scene works

Photo by Mark Garvin

The mega-musical is nothing new to the American stage. During the era before the corporatized transformation of 42nd street—long before red-and-blue spandexed stunt men began dropping from the rafters—mammoth works fought for Broadway houses. Cats. Phantom of the Opera. Les Miserables. Starlight Express. Miss Saigon. Sunset Boulevard. Each of these 1980s and ’90s monstrous musicals—always fresh from landmark London runs—boasted a huge cast, a pop-filled score (it’s a beautiful song, but how many versions of I Dreamed a Dream did we really need?), and an epic set. Not just an epic set. A gargantuan set, resplendent with many cutting-edge, techno-enhanced moving parts, that became such an integral part of the production, they’re inexorably linked to the fabric of the piece. Can you imagine Phantom without the candlelit boat scene? Or Les Mis without the revolving barricade? Or Miss Saigon without the helicopter?

As I sat waiting for the curtain to rise on Walnut Street Theatre’s Miss Saigon, I couldn’t help but overhear (i.e., eavesdrop on) the women behind me discussing how the helicopter scene was going to be. (Never mind the fact that this scene lasts perhaps five to ten minutes of the two-hour and 45-minute running time.) The good news? The scene is great; the helicopter set piece, though not jaw-dropping, is effective (with wind blown into the audience, to boot). The other good news? John Farrell’s sets are respectable interpretations. The not-so-good news? The rest of the production, while filled with tremendous musical moments, feels a bit stale.

Miss Saigon is the retelling of Puccini’s tragic opera Madama Butterfly by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s (Les Miserables) and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. Set in Vietnam before the fall of Saigon, an American marine Chris (Eric Kunze) falls for a young girl, Kim (Melinda Chua), at a seedy Vietnamese club. They spend a magical night together, and Chris promises to take her back to the U.S. Unfortunately, during the evacuation of troops, Kim is unable to join Chris. She is left behind. And waits for the day when they are finally reunited.

Chua and Kunze are not new to Miss Saigon, or these roles—having appeared in the Broadway production. While each appears slightly older than their characters’ ages, they boast powerful voices, which they confidently apply to the belt-heavy score. Kunze ably performs “Why, God, Why?”; Chua, with a voice that sounded somewhat (and understandably) tired during a recent Tuesday performance, never sounded better than during the quiet and beautiful “Wedding Ceremony.” Unfortunately, their on-stage chemistry is no match for their vocal prowess. We never feel that immediate connection between them. We never see that intangible moment, like Maria and Tony at the gym dance, where they are magnetically drawn to each other.

The true highlights of this production are Mel Sagrado Maghuyop as the Engineer and Kate Fahrner as Ellen. Maghuyop (who assumed the role a few weeks ago, after actor Bobby Martino left the production) commands the intricate “American Dream.” Similarly, Fahrner, alone on stage, devastates with “Now That I’ve Seen Her.” Both actors bring intensity to their parts. Every moment feels new; every note, fresh. Excluding these actors and director Bruce Lumpkin’s intimate staging of “Stars and Moon,” Chris and Kim lie together in bed, singing, most acting feels stale and flat.

Perhaps it’s the fact that many cast members have performed in multiple productions of Miss Saigon. Perhaps it’s the musical staging, which often feels stereotypically melodramatic: Chris and Kim stand together, his arms wrapped around her. Maybe I was just distracted by Chris’s perfectly clean and ridiculous camouflage headband. But like Kunze’s every movement during the opening scenes—where it’s as if he’s consistently posing for an unseen camera—everything seems a bit routinized. This is a freight train of a piece. It needs actors who can step in front and control it, rather than actors who simply get dragged along by the score and the multitudinous set changes. And rely on the helicopter.

Miss Saigon runs through July 24th.

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