The program for Moonlight’s Miss Saigon shows the famous photo that inspired the musical. Taken in 1975 at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam, it’s a frantic crowd scene. In the foreground, a mother says goodbye to her daughter for the last time. The daughter is “half-American” and is flying to the U.S. to join her father. Possibly just realizing what’s ahead, she’s in tears. The mother, all in black, will remain behind. She holds her daughter’s hands and extends an unconditional look beyond stoicism, beyond — for the moment, at least — agony.
Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, authors of Les Miserables, say the photo of “ultimate sacrifice” inspired them to create Miss Saigon. Although nothing in the musical’s thousands of words, or notes, even approaches the look on the mother’s face, Moonlight’s polished, beautifully sung staging has its own rewards.
Except for the bui doi in the story — half-American children left behind — in many ways, the book has surprisingly little to say about Vietnam (the only GIs we see are on R&R, minus grimy fatigues, jungle rot, and thousand-yard stares). The war serves more as a backdrop, like restaging Shakespeare outside the Renaissance.
Miss Saigon feels like a patchwork quilt of borrowed stories and characters. The Engineer who runs the bar, called Dreamland, is a direct steal of Cabaret’s Emcee, and the rousing, epic score feels lifted from Les Miz (one could do the step-forward, step-back march to many of the numbers). The authors also grafted Puccini’s Madama Butterfly onto their tale of love and unintended betrayal.
Instead of the Japanese geisha in Butterfly, Kim’s a new bar girl in Saigon. Americans have begun to evacuate. The invading North Vietnamese Army killed her parents. Against a vow she made to marry her cousin Thuy, Kim falls for Chris, a GI, who wonders in song, “Why, God, Why?” have they fallen for each other at such a troubled time.
Rejected and irate, Thuy gives Kim one of musical theater’s most heinous curses.
Miss Saigon’s been called “the last of the West End musicals.” It opened in 1989 and concluded an era where musicals offered technologically gaudy signature effects: performed on roller skates, falling chandeliers. Moonlight’s production includes the musical’s famous calling card — a Huey helicopter descends late in Act Two — but the real draws are Jennifer Paz and Johann Michael Camat. Paz plays Kim, the 17-year-old orphan (and has often, including at the Starlight Bowl and a national touring show). Her crystal-clear voice spans octaves; her emotions always ring true.
Camat’s played the Engineer before, as well. The pimp admits he’s an exploiter out for Number One. But isn’t that, he asks without asking, the way things are? Camat scores with the musical’s big 11th-hour number, “The American Dream,” which Moonlight augments with the musical’s other signature effect: a pink Cadillac rolls into the bright lights, and the Engineer, as is his wont, tries to have his way with the gleaming hood.
Although the musical flits around like an abridged epic, director Steven Glaudini and conductor Kenneth Gammie give the three-hour evening a steady pace. Miss Saigon runs through this weekend, thus concluding San Diego’s outdoor musical season. I recommend the show. I also recommend coats and blankets. As the guy said next to me, as he fortified his coffee with an amber fluid, “It’s football weather out here!”
A tale of two relationships: one just beginning, between Connie and Jack, late-20ish innocents; the other, Clyde and Lucy, hardened vets after five years of affairs and disillusion. At one point Lucy tells eager Jack, when you’re in a relationship for any length of time, “A LOT HAPPENS!”
Bob Glaudini’s savvy comedy Jack Goes Boating has a dual focus: how to kindle and rekindle a partnership. The closer Connie and Jack come together — they grope in the haven’t-a-clue, not the getting-to-first-base sense — the farther Clyde and Lucy grow apart.
Under Claudio Raygoza’s capable direction, a quartet of actors turn in fine performances, their New York accents and attitudes firmly in place. Steven Lone and Sara Beth Morgan keep Clyde and Lucy on two levels: the surface, where ganja and lines of coke hold demons at bay; and down below, where the demons rattle cages and threaten to revolt.
Brian Mackey’s Jack has blond pseudo-dreadlocks (his mantra is Jimmy Cliff’s “Rivers of Babylon”) and an urge to improve: as a cook, as a swimmer, as a lover. Rhianna Basore’s cursed Connie — who’s practically a magnet for malice — takes understandably small steps.
Denis De Rougemont said, “Happy love has no history.” You hope that Jack and Connie have none as well. But here the author, a local theater legend, complicates matters: people probably hoped the same for vein-bulging Jack and seething Lucy way back when.
Miss Saigon, music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil, book by Boublil
Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace, Vista
Directed by Steven Glaudini; cast: Johann Michael Camat, Jennifer Paz, Melvin Robert III, Douglas Carpenter, Joseph Andreas, Cassandra Murphy, Katherine Brady, Klarissa Mesee; lighting, Christina L. Munich; sound, Peter Hashagen; musical director, Charlie Reuter; conductor, Kenneth Gammie; choreographer, Carlos Mendoza
Playing through September 25; Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. 760-724-2110
Jack Goes Boating by Bob Glaudini
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Claudio Raygoza; cast: Rhianna Basore, Steven Lone, Brian Mackey, Sara Beth Morgan; scenic and lighting design, Raygoza; costumes, Trista Roland; sound, Melanie Chen
Playing through October 9; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. 619-600-5020.