by Clark Groome
When I first saw “Miss Saigon” on Broadway 20 years ago, the production and cast were both superb. When the national company’s tour stopped at the Forrest Theatre five years later, the production was superb, but the cast was less so.
The current “Miss Saigon,” at the Walnut Street Theatre through July 24, has an inconsistent cast in a serviceable but far-from-distinguished production.
The updated version of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” by “Les Misérables” creators Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with additional material by Richard Maltby Jr., tells the story of Chris, a young U.S. Marine in Vietnam during the closing days of American involvement in that war. Just as the war is winding down, he begins a relationship with Kim, a beautiful young virgin who escaped her village’s destruction and her arranged betrothal only to land in Saigon at the mercy of a hustler/pimp known as The Engineer.
Chris and Kim fall in love, but she doesn’t get to the embassy in time to make the last helicopter out of town. Three years later, The Engineer seeks out Kim on behalf of her original betrothed only to find out that she has a three-year-old son (by Chris of course). Chris, back in the U.S., has gotten married, having given up all hope of ever seeing Kim again.
Chris’ old Marine buddy, John, is heading an agency to reunite Amerasian kids with their fathers, so Kim’s son, Tam, and Chris finally meet in an encounter that is at once tragic and hopeful.
When in its original Broadway production, “Miss Saigon” made up in stagecraft for what it lacked in its rather melodramatic and paper-thin book. The Walnut production isn’t as well crafted as the original; as a result, the whole affair seems somewhat overblown. It is definitely overloud.
The original production was made famous by the appearance of a helicopter at the time when the American embassy was being evacuated. The Walnut production has a great helicopter, too, actually better than the one I remember on Broadway.
Directed by Bruce Lumpkin, the Walnut’s staging has been designed by John Farrell (sets), Jack Jacobs (lighting), Colleen Grady (costumes) and David Temby (sound). They all do well enough, but neither their work nor Lumpkin’s direction creates the energy or excitement necessary for the production to overcome the thin book. The music, while sounding a lot like the “Les Miz” score, is often quite tuneful and moving.
The cast is a mixed bag. Giving strong performances are Melinda Chua as Kim, Eric Kunze as Chris, Philip Michael Baskerville as John and Kate Fahrner as Chris’ wife, Ellen. The large chorus is musically impressive.
The Engineer is both narrator and catalyst to the story. Bobby Martino turns in a performance that was a combination of Jerry Lewis and Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret.” It’s an odd turn that is neither menacing enough nor credible. The fact that Martino is so overmiked as to be almost unintelligible in the early going doesn’t help.
For those who have never seen the show before, I’m sure it will bring pleasures that escaped me. On the third viewing, however, the show doesn’t hold up.
For tickets to the Walnut Street Theatre production of “Miss Saigon,” which plays through July 24, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org