Broadway in Detroit kicked off its new season Tuesday night with “Miss Saigon,” a musical that, when it made its debut, was admired as much for its sheer spectacle as for its compelling story and passionate music. This official tour, one of several crisscrossing the globe, is proof that the show has staying power. Point of fact – “Miss Saigon” is the 11th longest-running Broadway musical in history.
The secret may be in its provenance. The musical is based on Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and it breaks our hearts in precisely the same way. We may try to steel ourselves with the mantra, “it’s just make-believe” – but we know that even though the characters are fictional, their tragedy is all too real.
The brain trust behind “Miss Saigon” is the Tony Award-winning team of Claude Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, the visionaries behind “Les Miserables.” They prove once again that history’s most poignant moments make for compelling musical theatre.
In “Miss Saigon,” Schonberg and Boublil move the story from turn-of-the-century Japan to war-torn Vietnam in 1975. It’s a love story about the relationship between an American GI (Chris, played by Charlie Brady) and a young Vietnamese woman (Kim, played by Manna Nichols ) during the American occupation of Saigon. The lovers are tragically separated when Saigon falls, Chris is shipped home, and Kim is left to fend for herself. Chris tries but fails to find out what has become of Kim and eventually marries an American girl without knowing that he is the father of Kim’s child. All the while, Kim holds firm to the belief that Chris will return and take them to America.
If you’re familiar with the Puccini opera, you know how the story ends. But the plot is not the main point. Even in this modern retelling, the essential lessons ring true across the decades: Bigotry, prejudice and stereotypes supply easy answers for the morally lazy. The American Dream is still something worth living and dying for. Self-sacrifice is a mother’s prime directive and final prerogative. And the most painfully true message – innocent children are inevitably the victims of man’s folly.
Act Two opens with actual footage, shot in Vietnamese orphanages, of the children fathered and left behind by American GI’s. These innocents became social outcasts called “Bui Doi,” – “Dust of life.” An estimated 50,000 of these children were subject to terrible discrimination and hardships, but were kept in Vietnam as virtual political hostages. The children were not allowed to leave Vietnam until 1987, with the passage of the American Homecoming Act. And less than half made it out. That’s not just a Broadway tear-jerker. That’s history. That’s the real tragedy behind “Miss Saigon.”
If you haven’t seen “Miss Saigon,” this is a great opportunity. The cast is strong – with powerful voices that bring the music alive and make the spectacular choreography look easy. All of the principals are first-rate, but Orville Mendoza, as the conniving Engineer, ultimately steals the show. His is a despicable character – but Mendoza oozes a certain affable charm (and brilliant talent) that makes us cheer for him anyway.
The gifted cast includes: Charlie Brady, Katie Boren, Meggie Cansler, Andy Danh, Robyn DeGuzman, Rona Figueroa, Nkrumah Gatling, Dan Gleason, Chris Ignacio, Eric Anthony Johnson, Austin Ku, Jonny Hsu Lee, Glen Llanes, Garen McRoberts, Orville Mendoza, Shoba Narayanan, Manna Nichols, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, Alfie Parker Jr., David Raimo, Peter Romagna, Michiko Sasaki, Christopher Shin, Richard M. Steele, Viet Vo, Allen Lucky Weaver, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Jessica Wu, Anna-Lee Wright, Minami Yusui, Arianna Yi, Sam Simahk, Yuki Ozeki and Daphne Valenta.
The creative team for “Miss Saigon” includes Director Fred Hanson, Music Director Kevin Stites, and Choreographer Baayork Lee. Other artists and staff include: Denton Yockey, Executive Producer; Kirk Bookman, Lighting Designer; Braxton Cornelius, Sound Designer; Mary Traylor; Costumer; Joanne Weaver, Wig Designer; Susan Kikuchi, Associate Choreographer; Robert Thurber, Production Stage Manager; Kent Andel, Production Manager; Caroline Lakin, Company Manager; and Randy Moreland, Head Carpenter.
“Miss Saigon” runs at the Fisher Theatre, September 24 – October 6, with performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.. A special Open Captioned performance is scheduled for Sunday, October 6 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $90 (includes parking and facility fees) and are on sale at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online, or at the Fisher Theatre box office. The Fisher Theatre is located at 3011 W. Grand Blvd., in Detroit.