Review of Miss Saigon

Saturday, May 10, 2003 at 8:00pm
Flint Center
Cupertino, CA

This was my third time seeing Miss Saigon. The first two were of the 2nd National Tour stop in San Francisco in 1998 (one in September and the other in December). So there was a significantly longer gap between viewings this time, so I really remember very little to compare things to -- the only reference points I have are the Original London Cast (1989) and the Complete Symphonic Recording (1995). Certain things did stand out, though, and I will make notes of them as they are applicable.

This tour was not one of the Cameron Mackintosh licensed productions like the National Tours. Instead, it was licensed by Music Theatre International, and the production was put on by a company called Big League Theatricals. Perhaps this is because the Broadway production closed at the end of 2000. And while I highly doubt it, I can't help but wonder if this has any effect on budget and/or quality. This, too, I'll delve into later.

First, the cast:

The Engineer Jon Jon Briones
Kim Jennifer Hubilla
Chris Alan Gillespie
John Wallace Smith
Thuy Mario Tadeo
Ellen Rachel Kopf
Gigi Ramona Dubarry
Tam Ashley Chan
Yvonne Emerita Alcid
Mimi Irene Caguinguin
Fifi Cynthia Tomm
Yvette Rae Toledo
Bar Girls Sharon Lee, Debralee M. Daco
Guards Michael J. Bulato, Mel Sagrado Maghuyop
Assistant Commissar/Moulin Rouge Owner Miguel C. Braganza II
Shultz Craig Laurie
Fitch Jonathan Hack
Santiago D. William Hughes
Ryan Jonatha Tisevich
Jeter Jeremy Woodard
Buck Michael Buchanan

Overall, I would say this performance was good, but there is a bit of room for improvement. I would give it a 3 out of 5 stars.

 Perhaps there were some technical difficulties in the first half of the first act, because "The Overture" and "The Heat is On in Saigon" sounded somewhat muffled, particularly the Engineer and Chris. Chris' microphone even went out at the end of "The Transaction." Also, the stage of the Flint Center is rather small compared to what would be necessary for the full sets and props, so there was no full-scale helicopter coming on stage. Chris and John's "Telephone Song" were not done over the telephone, but, instead, face-to-face. And they used the large projection screen to simulate the helicopter and to show a slideshow of American symbols and images during "The American Dream." This, obviously, took a lot away from the dramatic effect.

Briones, Gillespie, and Tadeo had the top three performances of the night. It felt like Briones had a bit of a slow start, but I think it might have been related to the audio system and the fact that he couldn't be heard as clearly as he should have been. But once that was settled, he had a great presence on stage as the Engineer. He certainly knew how to work the audience, played well off the other characters, and had a great voice to go along with that acting. "The American Dream" just about brought the show to a halt, with Briones' great sense of timing, dancing, and the beautiful sound of his voice every time he sang the word "dream."

Gillespie was a very strong Chris. It was unfortunate his microphone dropped out for a bit, but every note he sang that could be heard was accurate and well-supported. Especially when he sang loud, it was flawless, and his highlights included "Why God Why?" and "The Confrontation. "When it was called for, he could easily portray desperation, anguish, and hurt. Where as Simon Bowman and Peter Cousens had rather somewhat higher natural voices in the OLC and CSR, respectively, Gillespie had a very full voice that could fill the entire theater.

Tadeo made a very good Thuy, and at times he even reminded me of Andy Lanai on the OLC recording. Like Gillespie, he had a powerful voice and his notes were full and carried a great euphonic quality. I believe he is Mexican (or at least he studied acting in Mexico), and he had a strong accent that was quite noticeable in some phrases. It wasn't much of a distraction at all, but it was a little unexpected. Other than that, I really enjoyed his performance.

Hubilla overall had a good voice -- she hit almost all of her notes, some of her long notes were powerful, and she was pretty good about enunciating her words. But the problem I had with her performance was in some of her other long notes. It was like if she wasn't trying to sing full force and then tried to add vibrato, that note became very weak and had little support. It sounded like a different vowel from when the note started. Half the time I felt as if she didn't have the volume to carry the long notes all the way to the end. This was especially true in the first act, but it got better and it wasn't as prevalent in the second act. In fact, I rather enjoyed her performance in the second act. All the desperation Kim had in trying to find Chris and the despair after finding out Chris was married came through.

Smith delivered a fairly flawless performance as John. All his notes were perfect, and his lines had a very believable delivery. I could tell he has been doing musical theater for a long time because he knew all the right places to take pauses, add emphasis, and make sure consonants come through clearly. "Bui Doi" was powerful. Smith made it feel as if every line he sang was a call of help from those children in need. He was very effective in drawing the audience back into the dramatic storyline after the intermission. My only criticism was that he wasn't all that exciting to watch. A lot of the time he just stood there, with his arms down by his side, and singing his lines. I would have liked some supporting body movements. His singing style was very clean (which I like), a stark contrast from Hinton Battle's almost jazz-like performance on the CSR.

Kopf as Ellen started pretty good in "I Still Believe." Her voice was strong and clear then, but in the second act, all that changed. All through "Room 317," "Now That I've Seen Her," and "The Confrontation" her voice didn't have as much support as she started out with, and she tried to half-speak, half-sing most of her lines. It became very distracting and unmelodic. I can honestly say I did not care for her Ellen.

I had a few doubts about Dubarry as Gigi at first. Especially in "Movie in My Mind," she didn't hold the long notes for their full values, and I kept wondering if that was a musical change or if it was because she couldn't hold the notes and make them sound good. But it seemed to work in a way, and she had a great way of showing her hatred of her life as a prostitute and her dreams of a better life in America -- so much that it brought tears to my eyes.

The songs:

"Overture/Back Stage Dreamland": Again, maybe it was the unsettled sound system, but I didn't feel like the words everyone was singing were making their impact. But the bar girls were effective in making fun of Kim and being mean to her.

"The Heat is On in Saigon": The same goes with this song as the previous one in that the words just weren't coming out and being effective. There's a lot going on here, particularly with John and Chris, which are important to the story, but it wasn't until the Engineer had Kim climb up on top of a chair that someone's personality stood out. Even the scene with Gigi picking out the winning raffle ticket was rather subdued (and the Engineer is now yelling out, "Number sixty-six!" instead of Gigi). Also, they took out the part at the very end when Gigi begs the winning marine to take her to America. Now, the marine tries to put his hands all over her and she slaps him hard.

"The Movie in My Mind": As I mentioned above, this was very beautifully done. I really felt for the bar girls, and at the end of the song when they're singing together, I could get the feeling that they wanted to stick together and see each other through this less-than-respectable life they've made for themselves.

"The Transaction": The events in this scene stood out more, and for the first time we really get a feeling for how much of a weasel the Engineer can be. It was a little awkward, though -- but I guess that was the intention -- just after John buys Kim for Chris and goes over to him, Kim is just standing there behind John, holding her tray and looking down at the floor, all the while John is trying to convince Chris that this is what he needs.

"The Dance": This is where Chris' microphone cut out, just after Kim says, "I like you, Chris," and he says, "Don't talk like that." Kim sings, "What did I say?" but Chris' next lines couldn't be heard: "You shouldn't be here. Get the hell out." But they went on with the scene, and at the end Kim leads Chris up a set of stairs to a room (these stairs would be used numerous times later -- I guess they were very limited with sets).

"Why God Why?": Gillespie really shone here. His microphone trouble seemed to have been solved, and every word that he sang came through with the best tone and pitch. I don't remember how this was staged before, but in the break in the song, Chris is wandering the streets and is approached by a Vietnamese man begging him to help him get out of Saigon. Chris gets upset and knocks him to the ground. At the end of the song, the man gets up and runs away with just one look that Chris gives him.

"This Money's Yours": The beginning of this scene was nothing remarkable, but when Kim started telling Chris about how she lost her family in a bombing attack, Hubilla's voice didn't seem to have the power I'm used to hearing in the OLC or CSR to convey the despair she felt. She sang loud, but it was a little on the monotonous side. Some of the key phrases got lost in the rest of the words. But after that, Gillespie did a good job in showing Chris' sympathy for Kim.

"Sun and Moon": Nicely done, but there were times when they sang together that Gillespie's voice overpowered Hubilla's.

"The Telephone Song": As I mentioned before, this was not done over the telephone as it should have been. Chris meets with John face-to-face. But luckily, the lyrics don't really reflect the fact that it should have been over the phone, except for the fact that Chris wants to take his leave even though he sees the other marines around him frantic and rushing to pack things. Was he not supposed to see that Saigon was falling apart?

"The Deal":

"The Wedding Ceremony (Dju Vuy Vay)": I expected Gigi to be a little more friendly to Kim, but for some reason I got the feeling that she was jealous of her. It was in the way that she stood and sang, "So now who's really Miss Saigon?" Then when the girls started singing "Dju Vuy Vay," it was very soprano-heavy and the tone of their voices became more high-pitched than I'm used to. I can't say that it sounded all that great. And it was kind of funny when the girls got Chris to kneel down, took both of his hands and washed them before leading him to kneel beside Kim at the shrine. When Kim says, "It's what all the girls sing at weddings," Chris was bowed half-way and upon hearing that, his hands hit the floor just a fraction of a second before his head hit. Nice reaction.

"Thuy's Arrival": I don't remember Kim saying the line, "We were promised at thirteen" to Chris, but that's what Hubilla did here. It works, but I expected her to direct all her lines at Thuy. And when Thuy and Chris pull their guns at each other, Kim steps in between them, but Hubilla is a lot shorter than both men, so she wouldn't have stopped either man from shooting.

"The Last Night of the World": Nicely done, but again, like in "Sun and Moon," Gillespie's voice was much stronger than Hubilla's and there were times when Hubilla couldn't be heard at all.

"The Morning of the Dragon": Very well choreographed dance sequences here. I remember the last time I saw Miss Saigon, the dancers here held various things in their hands, like flags and sticks that they twirled and beat on the floor. But this time, there were no hand props until the group of soldiers came out with guns. It was also interesting in one sequence where they had a dancing dragon chasing a lion with an American flag draped over its back. The dragon bit the lion, and the lion disappeared off stage while the dragon continued to dance. Interesting symbolism there.

In the scene where they bring out the Engineer, Briones did a good job at showing learned submissiveness. When the soldiers and Thuy were addressing him, he stayed in a crouched position on the floor and didn't look up once until he sings, "But men must help other men, and seeing it's you, I'll work to the bone."

"I Still Believe": Like I mentioned above, Kopf sang decently here, and her voice blended well with Hubilla's. It was just those long notes at the beginning (like the word, "still") where Hubilla's voice lost some of its support and sounded a little weak. But at the end of the song, the power in the voice matched that of Kopf's and the last note that they sing were in great harmony.

"Back in Town": Good interaction between Kim and Thuy.

"Thuy's Death/You Will Not Touch Him": Ashley Chan, who played Tam here, was a little on the tall side to be three years old, in my opinion. She was up to Hubilla's waist. But the scene was really well done, and this is always one of two places that really gets to me. Even though Kim was desperate to protect her son, it's always very clear that the last thing she wanted to do was to shoot Thuy. This is clear in the way she takes Thuy into her arms as he falls to the ground, almost apologetically, and Hubilla did an excellent job at portraying this.

"If You Want to Die in Bed": Briones did a lot of running up and down the stage at the beginning of this song. I don't remember the Engineer doing that in previous times (but it could just be my memory). He was quite funny when he took out his stash at Dreamland, money, fake Rolex watches, and the Miss Saigon crown. The crown, he put on his head, did that corny beauty pageant hand-wave, had a huge grin on his face, and said, "Hi!"

"Kim & Engineer": I loved the Engineer's reaction when he finds out Tam is the son of a marine. His whole monologue was hilarious, with great timing and his expressions. I don't think I realized until this time that this mini-scene was supposed to be comedic.

"I'd Give My Life For You": Vocally, Hubilla was very good. There was very little sense of weakness in her voice that I kept hearing earlier in the first act. But her stage movements were very limited -- to the point where her leaning forward to touch Tam on the head got very repetitive. I think she must have done this at least ten times during the entire song. A little variation would have been nice.

"Bui Doi": Very powerful. Smith's performance in conjunction with the video screen with pictures of suffering children was all anyone needed to get emotions going again, especially just after intermission. The last time I saw Miss Saigon, I remember them having some text on the video screen during this song, asking for contributions, but that's gone. Now it's only pictures of children.

"The Revelation":

"What a Waste": It was quite entertaining watching the Engineer "steal" customers away from the other clubs. One of his many antics was to pick the wallet from one guy's back pocket and toss it in the air so that it landed in the hands of one of the other vendors, thereby annoying the customer away from patronizing that vendor and he follows the Engineer into his club. Brilliant.


"Chris is Here":

"Kim's Nightmare/Thuy's Ghost": I like how Thuy appears -- behind the curtain where Tam was supposed to have been sleeping. The light inside the curtain comes on and you see his shadow sitting cross-legged on the bed. Nice, creepy effect.

"The Fall of Saigon": I think I remember when I saw Miss Saigon before, when the scene cuts to Kim and Chris' room, with Chris rushing off back to the Embassy, that they were in bed. But this time they were crouched on the floor, I think packing. Chris' line, "I want you in that bed waiting when I get back" is now changed to "our bed." As I mentioned before, the helicopter landing was an animation on the video screen. I guess if you weren't expecting a life-size helicopter coming on stage, it could have been just as effective, but for me it was a major disappointment. It's just not the same. Also, the crowd of Vietnamese who couldn't escape with the Americans had looks of despair on their faces, but I'm used to hearing screams and yelling when the helicopter takes off without them. There was minimal noise that could be heard from the people, and this too took away from the dramatic effect that could have been.

"Room 317": A major turning point in the story. I heard a lot of people around tsk-ing and mumbling, "Oh, no" when they realized Kim was going to come face-to-face with Chris' wife, Ellen. Despite my disappointment with Kopf's performance in this song and here-after, the acting was pretty good. And I noticed a very slight change that is quite effective: when Ellen sings, "Please come inside, no one will hurt you. I'm Chris' wife. My name is --" She cuts off right there, where Ellen realizes Kim doesn't know Chris has wife. Either that, or her microphone cut out (ha ha). The pain that Kim feels was very well portrayed by Hubilla here, both in her face, body, and voice.

"Now That I've Seen Her": As I said before, Kopf half-spoke, half-sang a lot of her lines, especially in the first half of this song. I'm sorry, but it didn't work. It sounded really terrible and it was distracting as hell. To half-speak your lines once in a while can be dramatically effective, and when done at the right time, but the way Kopf did this was anything but. I don't know if this was an acting choice that she made, or if it was something the director told her to do. Either way, it didn't work. Aside from that, Kopf's vocal ability didn't seem as strong as in "I Still Believe" and there were many times where her voice didn't have the support that it needed to sing this song. There are a lot of high, long-held notes that require lots of lung power, and she didn't have it.

"The Confrontation": Kopf's acting was good in this scene, and it was clear that Ellen was genuinely mad at Chris for not telling her all of the truth. But this scene truly belonged to Gillespie as he relived his nightmares, trying to explain to Ellen what his life was like during the war and how all he wanted to do was protect Kim. The years of pain and anguish came rushing out as he told her of badly he felt for failing to do so. Then later, as he and Ellen decided what to do about Kim and Tam, I could feel that they were being a little bullheaded and were underestimating the situation. This was underscored by John's lines, which unfortunately, unless you already know the lyrics, is hard to pick out of the trio.

"The American Dream": This was possibly one of the show's greatest highlights. Briones can sing very well, and he can dance and he can work the audience to get maximum comedic effect. A lot of it is in the brilliant lyrics, but he played off of them well. For example, in the line, "Fat, like a chocolate eclair, as you suck out the cream," he made this loud slobbering sound as he mimed sucking out the cream. And then when he sings, "Cars that have bars take you there, the American dream," he says, "Honk! Move outta the way!" And then at the end of the song, when all the razzle dazzle is disappearing off-stage, he was very comedic in trying to get everyone to come back.

"Finale": For me, at least, the impact of Kim's death was carried by Chris' reaction. Because I'd seen this show twice before and listened to it countless times, I wasn't immediately affected. But what you don't get on the recordings is how traumatically Chris cries out when Kim dies in his arms. That's what did it for me, and at that point I was in tears.

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