It’s a truism when it comes to driving, and it’s equally true when it comes to theater, as the current production of “Miss Saigon” proved at its opening night performance Tuesday at the Tulsa PAC.
Director Laurence Connor has staged much of the action at such a frenetic pace that the actors have little time or space to bring any sense of depth to their characters. Perhaps the thought was everyone knows the story — whether from seeing “Miss Saigon” in the past or from its inspiration, Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” — so we can focus on the spectacular and the outrageous.
Add to that a sound mix that was about as muddy as the Mekong Delta, and you are left with a “Miss Saigon” that might dazzle the eye but never quite manages to touch the heart.
The eye-dazzling stuff is certainly in place, however, beginning with the opening scene that introduces us in a hyper-kinetic way into the ultra-sleazy world of the Engineer (Red Concepcion).
It’s 1975 in Saigon, and the Engineer is trying to eke out a living running a brothel called Dreamland, while trying to curry favor with the Marines assigned to the U.S. Embassy in hopes of finagling a visa that will get him out of Saigon and into America.
On this particular night, the Engineer is presented with a new “employee” named Kim (Emily Bautista), a teenager who had fled to Saigon after her village was destroyed.
The virginal Kim is overwhelmed by her surroundings — the in-your-face raunchiness of the hookers, the pawing hands of the soldiers — and her terror captures the attention, and the pity, of Chris (Anthony Festa), a Marine long disillusioned by his time in Vietnam.
What was meant to be a one-night stand becomes an improbable romance, with Chris promising Kim that he will find a way to take her with him when he leaves Vietnam.
Those plans are interrupted when Saigon falls, and Kim spends the next three years waiting faithfully for the man she knows will return for her — and for the son who is the product of their one night together.
This includes fending off the belligerent advances of Thuy (Eymard Cabling), a cousin to whom Kim was promised in marriage and who in the years after the war has risen to a place of power within the North Vietnamese Army, and casting her lot reluctantly with that of the Engineer, who sees Kim’s half-American offspring as a potential ticket to his promised land.
Concepcion’s portrayal of the Engineer makes what was never a “likeable” character into a gleefully despicable imp of the perverse, going about his lascivious trade with gusto and giggles but always with an evil eye out for his own purposes. It’s the most over-the-top rendition of this character that I’ve seen, from the James Brown-like coiffure to the wicked way he manipulates the butterfly knife that is never far from his hand.
But it works in the context of this production, especially in the Engineer’s big number, “The American Dream,” a cakewalk-style number that is full of razzle-dazzle, scantily clad dancing girls and tuxedoed boys (Bob Avian’s choreography throughout the show is impressive and well-performed), and a full-sized Cadillac that is subjected to the Engineer’s “loving” attention.
It’s a totally unnecessary number — it doesn’t advance the story or tell anything about the Engineer that hasn’t been patently obvious from note one — but it’s a crowd-pleaser. Or, at least, a crowd-overwhelmer.
Bautista is good as Kim, who one can tell from the start is no delicate flower but a young woman with a spine of steel, determined to survive at all costs. Festa, on the other hand, is simply adequate as Chris, who equates melodramatic bellows for emotion. Bautista and Festa do a lot of passionate grappling, but there is no real romantic chemistry. There is more real emotion in Ellie Fishman’s performance of “Maybe,” as Chris’ American wife, Ellen, ponders her future upon learning about the existence of Kim and her son.
The scene that made “Miss Saigon” famous, depicting the last helicopter out of Saigon landing and taking off on stage, was suitably spectacular. Unfortunately, in the next scene, something went wrong backstage and the show was stopped for about 10 minutes as the crew rectified the mishap.
“Miss Saigon” continues with performances through Sunday, Jan. 5, at the Tulsa PAC. For tickets: 918-596-7111, myticketoffice.com.
NOTE: “Miss Saigon” is recommended for mature audiences because of language and subject matter.