Brilliant Score Drives NSMT’s ‘Miss Saigon’ (4 Stars)

by Claudia A. Fox Tree

MISS SAIGON Direction and Choreography by Richard Stafford; Scenic and Lighting Design by Jack Mehler; Costume Design by Paula Peasley-Ninestein; and Sound Design by Michael Eisenberg. Presented by The North Shore Music Theatre, located at 62 Dunham Road in Beverly, MA. Performed in the round through Sunday, November 17.

Winner of three Tony Awards, MISS SAIGON is the tragic story of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly set in the war zone of Vietnam. The show begins with the Artistic Director acknowledging that the story is about war and its devastating effects, which may, at times, be difficult to watch. Knowing that NSMT presents in the round, I eagerly scanned the theater wondering if and how the ‘helicopter scene’ would be presented. I searched the rafters with anticipation for a clue to whether or not I would witness this minor miracle of staging; after all, a big, bulky helicopter should be easy to spot! I couldn’t find the copter anywhere, so I was, indeed, surprised when it finally appeared at the end of the first act. The scene wasn’t what I expected, the helicopter was not the centerpiece, but the staging was very cool nonetheless. Ultimately, it ended up being less important to see the actual helicopter because the brilliant, technical aspect of lighting and sound design did all the work. It was hard to believe that a copter blade wasn’t piercing the night sky immediately above the audience. The visual effect was more ‘real,’ than the physical presence of the cockpit. I could swear I even felt wind on my face.

Jason Forbach plays Chris, a white American soldier, who falls in love with Kim, played by Jennifer Paz, a Vietnamese farm girl who arrives in the big city only to be recruited by the bald-headed Engineer, played by Francis Jue, to perform in a nightclub full of sequined, bikini clad dancing girls. The ‘girls’ and the seventeen-year-old Kim perform the catchy opening number, ‘The Heat is On In Saigon,’ and they are cute and fun to watch as they prance around the club lap-dancing with United States military men of all racial backgrounds. A dreamy production of, ‘The Movie In My Mind’ follows. It is no surprise that the songs are moving and memorable. The score and music is by Claude-Michel Schonberg and the lyrics are by Richard Maltby and Jr. and Alain Boublil. This is the same team that created LES MISERABLES, among other musicals.

Ms. Paz’s singing is beautiful. However, when Mr. Forbach began singing during the third song of the night, ‘The Transaction,’ my eyes and ears opened up wide. Whoa. He was stunning. He moved from a gentle, sincere, inner sadness, bordering on depression, into a man questioning what is happening, as he falls in love, expresses his joy, and projects his voice for all to hear. His boyish features reminded me that the average age of a soldier in Vietnam was just nineteen.

Chris and Kim live together as a married couple for two weeks. One of the most beautiful scenes in this musical is when they profess their vows to each other and the ‘girls’ sing the traditional Vietnamese wedding song because ‘it’s the only song they know’ about love. They sound like a live choir echoing in a sacred building filled with the light of a thousand candles.

While the imagery and songs express longing and affection, the story, at times, moves along slowly during this first scene of Act I. It’s about love, after all, and its lingering afterglow. Fortunately, there are a few numbers which pick up the pace and break up the romance of Act I, including the opening of the second scene in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). ‘The Morning of the Dragon’ reminded me of when the Nazis arrived to the club in the musical, Cabaret. Shocking and scary. The militant marching is interwoven into the dancing, which captures traditional Vietnamese movements. My eyes darted to every stage entrance to soak in the drama in all its red coloring.

Chris and Kim are separated during the fall of Saigon. Two characters emerge as ‘saviors.’ The Vietnamese Engineer who ends up protecting Kim and her ‘secret’ and the Black captain of Chris’s battalion, John, played by Rodrick Covington, who has his own recovery mission after the war ends. Act 1 ends with Kim’s foreboding and melancholy song, ‘I’d Give My Life For You.’

In the second act, the first song, ‘Bui-Doi,’ honors the children left behind from liaisons between American soldiers and Vietnamese women. Mr. Covington is passionate as he sings ‘I never thought I’d plead/For half-breeds from a land that’s torn/But then I saw a camp for children/Whose crime was being born.’ I had forgotten about this part of the play and felt my breathing get heavy and my eyes well up with tears. A video compilation of real life children, often in orphanages, is screened while a male choir sings back up. The sheer numbers of children left behind in Vietnam is astounding. At least that’s what I assume was shown, from my experience and memory of seeing this musical in other venues. At this performance, unfortunately, I was sitting in a section behind the screen and had no visibility at all, except to see the projector. While the song is moving, the emotional moment that combines real life visuals and heartfelt singing was completely lost on me after the first few seconds. I wished that there were two screens, or even a mirror above the projector so that I could see a little of what the other 75% of the audience was seeing.

The remainder of musical takes place in Bangkok and we meet Ellen, played by Haley Swindal. She is Chris’s blond, white, American wife whom he married after a year long search for Kim. I wanted to hate her, well her character, but I couldn’t. Ms. Swindal’s singing is boisterous and caring as she meets Kim, accepts her husband and all his past history, and belts out, ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her.’ But this is a star-crossed lovers tragic tale and the two are never to be able to recreate their past. Songs of guilt ensue until the dramatic ending.

I was pleased to see that so many members of the ensemble, both male and female, were of Asian descent. The ethnic and racial diversity of the cast brought an authenticity to the scenes and meant that no artistic decisions needed to be made to portray, say, non-Asian heritage folks as Asians. For those familiar with popular musicals entertaining Asian themes, the story of war, choosing a white American hero over an Asian man, and dying rather than ‘ruining’ his life, are all too familiar, and have even become a stereotypical Asian female archetype. However, the NSMT version of MISS SAIGON did some things others don’t always achieve, it reminded us of our diversity, our global connectedness, and the beauty of multi-racial relationships and children of that union through loving, powerful music and lyrics. For more info, go to