The most powerful moment of Miss Saigon, one of the most successful musicals in Broadway history, came halfway through the first act during a duet between Kim (played by Emily Bautista), the orphan girl forced to work at a brothel, and Chris (Anthony Festa), the smitten American sergeant.
“Do you want to be told how my village was burned?” Bautista sang to Festa, her face twisting with rage and pain. “Want to hear how my family was blasted away?”
This moment was electrifying because it spoke to the trauma suffered by the Vietnamese as collateral damage in America’s war. It was also perhaps the only powerful moment in the entire musical.
Based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera, Madama Butterfly, the love story at the center of Miss Saigon, at the Academy of Music through March 31, is a tragic one. Kim and Chris fall in love as Saigon is captured by the Viet Cong. The lovers are separated as Chris returns to America without Kim and marries. Kim, on the other hand, gives birth to their son, holding desperately onto the hope that Chris will one day return for her.
There were a lot of things to enjoy about the Kimmel Center’s staging of the musical.
The set by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, chock-full of moving parts (including a helicopter), did a stellar job at transporting the audience. The lighting (Bruno Poet) was surprising and effective with its harsh spotlights during tense moments and washes of color capturing the chaotic streets of Saigon and Bangkok. The acting, convincing. The singing, lovely with few mistakes.
But the problematic nature of the story itself — arguably the most important part of a musical — made watching the show a deeply unsettling experience.
From the first flashy musical number, which features scantily clad Vietnamese bar girls draped over the laps of American GIs, to gibberish lyrics that are supposed to sound like Vietnamese during Kim and Chris’s marriage ceremony, the stereotypes perpetuated throughout the entire musical were difficult to ignore. As Kim expired during the last scene, Chris’ wife, Ellen (Stacie Bono), scooped Kim’s son into her arms in preparation to take him to America, suggesting that Asian women are replaceable as wives, as mothers, and as human beings. It’s hard to swallow but perhaps not surprising, in light of the origins and original audience for this musical.
The question is whether there are ways to steer clear of these stereotypes and redeem the production. To be sure, Broadway’s relaunch of Miss Saigon in 2017 was an opportunity to stage the musical in a more respectful and nuanced way. Given our current political climate, the restaging could have made the show more inclusive, drawing on people’s desperation to immigrate to America from a politically unstable country. Or it could have added more nuance and strength to Kim’s character, instead of turning her into essentially a prop in Chris’s redemption arc in Act 2. But because none of that was done, these opportunities were squandered.