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MISS SAIGON
Powerful, Dramatic, Operatic
By Iride Aparicio

Photos by: Matthew Murphy
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The Helicopter landing

SAN FRANCISCO, CA –  Rarely can a theatre put its audience  into the action  being represented on its stage, but with the buzzing of helicopters flying over our heads, the sounds of  bullets and exploding bombs, imitated  by the instruments of  the orchestra, and sporadic flashes or  red lights projected on the walls of the SHN Orpheum Theatre, the National Tour of the new production of CAMERON MACKINTOSH Presents BOUBLIL & SCHÖNBERG's MISS SAIGON, which opened the SHN SEASON 2018-2019, managed to swept  the audience back to l975 and place it on a street in Saigon during the Vietnam’s War.    

From the street, we  move to Dreamland,  a Saigon’s brothel of Vietnamese girls run by a Vietnamese man who calls himself  The Engineer  (RED CONCEPCIÓN). Young, beautiful and completely alone, The Engineer's girls are trained to dance with the customers and sing. They express their feelings in “The Movie in My Mind” when they sing in the song's lyrics that they want to find love and get away from this place at war where men, without hearts, kill like men, and die like boys.

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RED CONCEPCIÓN as the Engineer

The Engineer  uses his girls as merchandise, selling them to the young GI’s and at times trying to get a Visa to the United States. He keeps the nights at his club exciting  by electing one of the girls to be “Miss Saigon” for one night, and  he “sell”  her for a higher price. On this night, however, he is advertising   “A Princess” a 17 year old country girl by the name of Kim (EMILY BAUTISTA) who he picked up on the street and is a virgin.

When John (J DAUGHTRY) a worker at the American Embassy had a fight with Gigi (CHRISTINE BUNUAN) The Miss Saigon of the night, because she asked him to marry her and take her to the United States as his wife, The Engineer offers him Kim (BUTISTA). When John  refuses to take the girl, his friend Chris (ANTHONY FESTA) a young GI who works as a driver at the American Embassy in Saigon and is with him, takes her.

Later, Chris expresses his feelings for the girl in the lyrics of his song “Why God Why? singing: Who is the girl in this rusty bed? Why I am back in this filthy room? Why is her voice ringing in my head?  Why am I high on her cheap perfume?

As a musical, MISS SAIGON is  powerful.

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ANTHONY FESTA and EMILY BAUTISTA as Chris and Kim

It is a story built with strong human emotions. A paradox. A love story in a place hate, the jungles of Vietnam where young men  die every day, and new babies come into the world and are called Bui Doi by the Vietnamese, which means “the dust of life.”  Vietnam, a war zone, where among the GI’s and the Vietnamese girls they meet, promises are broken, love assumes sacrifices, when it blooms, and death may be the price one pays when being betrayed.

Written in the program, a short article says that CLAUDE-MICHEL SCHÖNBERG, who composed the music,for MISS SAIGON, traces his inspiration to write a musical based on the story of a GI and a Vietnamese woman, in the Italian Composer Giacomo Puccini’s Opera MADAMA BUTTERFLY (1904).

Impressed by a black and White 1975 photograph of a Vietnamese Mother seeing her 11-year-old daughter off at Tan Son Nhut Air Base—The republic of Vietnam air force facility in te city of Saigon, the composer began pondering on the story. He read in the magazine, that the woman's daughter, was Vietnamese/American, and that the girl was being sent to live with her ex-GI father in the United States. SCHÖNBERG’s thought that for a mother, that was the ultimate sacrifice. To send her only child far away to America, where she may never see her again, in order to give her a better life. Maybe, it was then, when the beautiful melodies of MISS SAIGON started churning in his head.

The story of MISS SAIGON is a love story. Two young lovers, a 17 year old Vietnamese girl and an American GI who met in Saigon, fell in love, got married and when his regiment was ordered to leave Vietnam said goodbye in a duet of “The Last Night of the Word”  where Chris promise he will take her to the other part of the world, and after that, they dance as if it were their Last night together.

Many things happened during their three years separation. One of them: the war ended.

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The Company of MISS SAIGON Performs “The Morning of the Dragon”

To show the  l978  changes in HO CHI MINH CITY  (Former Saigon, because the city’s name was changed in l976 when the city merged with the surrounding GIA DINH Province at the end of the war) we see a group of armed Vietnamese soldiers marching in front of a Bust of  Ho Chi Minh, the Prime Minister and President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. As they march they sing The Morning of the Dragon, in choir which includes the lyrics: May all our children learn the tide of right. Giants fall, tigers burn. Someday with the dawn they are gone.

MISS SAIGON gets dramatic when we return to Atlanta, in September 1978.

The war is over. Inside a hotel room a room, John (DAUGHTRY  is showing a group of  members of a benefic Atlanta Association for children abandoned in Vietnam, a newsreel which shows the photographs of  the “Bui Doi” which means urchins or homeless children, but in MISS SAIGON's musical refer to the American/Asian children of Vietnamese women that the GIs left behind. in Vietnam. Addressing the people in the room, John describes these children in the song "Bui Doi" singing: They are called the Dust of Life. Conceived in Hell, and born in strife. They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do. We Can’t forget, must not forget, they are our children too.

We return to Bangkok, a month later.

Like hundreds of other Vietnamese girls who fell in love with American soldiers, Kim (BAUTISTA) was left behind in Vietnam when Chris (FESTA) returned home. She never heard from him again. And while things changed in the city, men, like The Engineer (CONCEPCIÓN) continued in his profession, this time trying to sell other women to tourists, outside the Moulain Rouge, a night club in Bangkok, singing on the sidewalk of the club enticing  “customers” to go inside to see the girls. By now Kim is one of them.

We meet her again, on a happy day. The day she is told by John that Chris has returned.
We  see her kneeling on the floor of her room, her face glowing with happiness, as  she opens a cardboard  box where she had kept all the clothes that she wore the day she married Chris. She puts them on, including the veil. Unable to wait for him at her home, she rushes to the hotel where she has been told that her husband is staying. MISS SAIGON becomes operatic, when Kim discovers the truth.

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RED CONCEPCIÓN (center) Singing American Dream

On press opening night, the audience  responded to the new MISS SAIGON, with a long standing  ovation. It was deserved. Under the Direction of  LAURENCE CONNOR The love, the  hatred, the betrayal, the remorse, the compassion, the sacrifice, the courage and even death, was presented with realism by each one of the actors.

To the excellent acting, we could add that the costumes (ANDREANE NEOFITOU) the choreography of BOB AVIAN, and the additional chorography of GEOFFREY GARRATT was beautiful and that the projection of  the landing of the helicopter on the stage (LUKE HALLS) needs to be seen, to be believed.

We will end our review by saying that, the music (CLAUDE-MICHEL SHÖNBERG, the old and the new lyrics (RICHARD MALTBY, JR. & ALAIN BOUBLIL the orchestration of WILLIAM DAVID BROHN and the magnificent sounding voices of each one of its actors. makes this new production of MISS SAIGON operatic.

MISS SAIGON will play at the SHN ORPHEUM THEATRE 1192 Market Street in San Francisco until November 4, 2018. For tickets you can go online to www.shnsf.com or call 888-746-1799.