Review: Touring Production of ‘Miss Saigon’ Tugs at the Heartstrings but Falls Short of Being as Moving as it Could Be

By Kim Jackson

The current revival production of Miss Saigon at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) opens with the sounds of the legendary helicopter. Indeed, mention this classic musical to anyone, and the first reference is to this iconic symbol pivotal to the story. Director Laurence Connor’s update for the revival, which comes to DPAC after closing on Broadway in 2018, hones in on the themes of corruption and sacrifice while heightening the spectacle with extreme theatricality. In other words, it is over-the-top exaggerated storytelling that appeals to many and repels others. And that sort of explains the mixed reaction this production received from the DPAC audience Wednesday night.

Revisiting the historical events of 1975 in light of recent conflicts and the current world refugee crisis, as well as our own fraught immigrant problems, seems to be the intention of this revival version. The audience is hauled into the seedy, gritty underbelly of a city in the throes of warring factions. American soldiers retreat to Dreamland, a raunchy bordello run by the manipulative Engineer, played with great flamboyance and tongue-in-cheek tackiness by Eymard Cabling (understudy to Red Concepción). The glaring neon set painfully highlights the degrading scene of simulated sex by the girls who see the visiting soldiers as their ticket out of this sordid world.

Enter the heroine in virginal white, orphaned by the war and in need of a way to support herself. Kim, played with the right amount of country girl, wide-eyed naivete by Emily Bautista, is quickly procured by one soldier, John, for his friend, Chris, who is in need of a diversion. Of course, Chris, a depressed and cynical soldier, is smitten with Kim and she is completely besotted by him. While Chris is played competently by Anthony Festa, and he has an amazing voice that complements his lover’s vocals, his passion felt restrained: flames were needed, not embers to show how he has fed the fire that Kim carries in her heart for this man.

The rest of the archetypal plot, with its predictable unfortunate consequences, unfolds over the next two hours broken up by choreography that figuratively marches through the historical timeline of a war and a city abandoned by the American forces. Other elements coax audience emotions into overdrive. John, the soldier who once bought young girls for sex, now attempts to save the “buo doi” or “children of the dust,” American children, abandoned in Vietnam after the war. His haunting song, belted out with an intense raw emotion by J. Daughtry, is set against the backdrop of a film of refugee children purposely poised to pluck at the heartstrings and set up Kim’s ultimate sacrifice. This show goes all out, shamelessly, for the emotional experience.

And yet, that seems to be the point of this production: empathize with those dealing with the aftermath of war and foreigners wishing to flee to the United States to seek refuge and have a shot at the American dream. It is all rather exhausting, and not nearly as moving or as engaging as it should be. Entertaining and provocative visuals abound, but they fail to elicit the heartful depth and affecting impact this production strives for.

Miss Saigon runs through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit: https://www.dpacnc.com/.

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