Miss Saigon has returned to the Pittsburgh CLO stage. The cast sings with plenty of strength, even beauty…..when possible… and the orchestra, led by Tom Helm, plays superbly. What a shame that they do so in the service of so many shoddy songs. Yeah, I know. This audience-magnet has drawn in hordes since first hitting London in 1989, stunning Brits for 10 years with an equally running smash in New York starting in 1991. But people often want to be there for something famous just due to the fame, not the quality. Well, this could make them think it’s major, knocking them dead almost from the get go with heavy-handed songs.
Remember that this is another epic by the guys who already who created The Miserable Ones in 1980, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. Both shows come cast from the same mold: heavy drama, a large cast, an emphasis on special effects and, musically, pretentious attempts as something like opera but lacking imagination and originality.
You may have heard that Miss Saigon is based on Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. True. And Boublil and Schöenberg’s transformation has potential, updating it all to Saigon and nearby over a three-year period involving an American Marine, Chris, (the Pinkerton role) a Vietnamese bar girl Kim (i.e Butterfly) and mixed race wheeler-dealer The Engineer (marriage broker, Goro.) Plus it’s also got a cute little kid.
The action comes across looking dramatic and colorful. Director Barry Ivan and scenic designer Michael Anania make that work really well. The first act in particular stays dynamic and lively. Except….someone transposed the big physical moment from the first act to the second. The helicopter bit. So, audiences could feel that something crucial is missing, a famed highlight of Miss Saigon. Instead it turns up as an odd flashback in the second act. No harm done, really. Maybe it’s been relocated to make up for major absences in the second act: good songs.
This, remember, is a sung-through musical. Too bad that so little is spoken. Some recitatives could stand replacement. Nonetheless the first act has a few appealing songs. And, every so often, orchestrator William D. Brohn inserts good Asiatic color, even as did Puccini. But by the time that act ends, the singing has become standard, obvious selling in which feelings are expressed by being loud and holding lots of notes. Don’t blame the cast. This is their job.
As for that cast, as Kim, Ma-Anne Dionisio stands out with a wonderful voice, heard to best advantage early on before she has to do the pushy stuff. Kevin Gray plays The Engineer, a role which, by now, he sort of owns. The further into the show he got on opening night, the more his interpretation became overdone. Sure, everybody around him was singing their guts out, but he’s done the role often enough, he should have been able to hold his own and not be influenced by so much else going over the top.
Giacomo must be writhing in his coffin.
Miss Saigon continues through Sunday, June 20th at Benedum Center, downtown. Tickets at 412/456-6666 or the Box Office at Theater Square. Or pittsburghclo.org