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WASHINGTON, D.C. — “Miss Saigon,” a musical about a South Vietnamese orphan and teen who falls in love with an American GI, premiered in London in 1989, however, its themes of immigration and the subjugation of women are still relevant today.
Onstage at the Kennedy Center in D.C. through Jan. 13th, the play is set at the fall of the Vietnam War and is loosely based on the Giacomo Puccini Opera, “Madame Butterfly.” This 2017 Broadway revival features Emily Bautista as Kim and Anthony Festa as Chris and is replete with lush, musical songs, a dynamic cast and grand stage effects.
However, if the politics, or some of the characterizations of Asians, are problematic for you then you may reconsider buying tickets. With a plot that includes a seedy bar owner who pimps and abuses women, and lyrics that can often be demeaning, “Miss Saigon” may seem outdated.
That said, in Director Laurence Connor’s capable hands, “Miss Saigon” will still tug at your heart strings with its story of a young bride left behind and people who clamor for the American Dream, even with its worldly and morally crass values.
As Kim, Bautista brings an innocence and tenderness to the role as a 17-year-old teen bound to a Vietnamese man, Thuy, because of her father’s wishes. When her family is killed by American bombs, she goes to work in the seedy Dreamland bar owned by The Engineer (Red Concepcion), a pimp who is determined to get to America and live the American Dream. He sees American servicemen as his ticket, hustling the women workers in his bar, including Kim, a virgin and “fresh meat,” who can be “bought” at a higher fee.
When fate pairs her for the night with the decent, caring Chris, the two fall quickly in love. This sets the stage for Kim being cursed by Thuy (Jinwood Jung) who has been desperately looking for her to marry her and the ensuing tragedy.
As The Engineer, Red Concepcion is superb in the role, commanding every scene when he appears on stage. Festa and Bautista exude a believable chemistry and their duet on “Sun and Moon” is particularly sweet and tender. J. Daughtry is impressive as Chris’ fellow GI friend, John, who forces him to leave on the last helicopter in a chaotic scene when Kim and Chris get separated.
The play deals with other issues that arose when American soldiers were in Vietnam, including the many children fathered by American soldiers who were left behind when Saigon fell. In the play, The Engineer sees the son of Kim and Chris as his passport to America, while Kim sees America as the road to a better life for her son.
“Miss Saigon” benefits from a talented creative team that includes conductor Will Curry and set design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley. And, yes. That scene with the helicopter landing on top of the American Embassy still is as thrilling as ever. For tickets, visit kennedycenter.org.