IMR: 1999: October: 24 —  Sunday, 10:44 p.m.
Our Apartment, Makiki, Hawai`i

[ Before the Fall of Saigon ]Did we enjoy Miss Saigon on Thursday? Well, let's just say it was good enough for Jen to talk me into paying a king's ransom for the special edition, complete recording on CD the instant the curtain fell.

Just the chance to go out and see a show was a little thrill in itself. While Mom babysat Katie in our apartment, we popped over to the Neil Blaisdell Concert Hall. Even with me in a sport coat and Jen in a mu`umu`u, we were distinctly overdressed — the crowd was much more casual than the ones for Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera. But we didn't care... this was a capital-d 'Date,' after all.

[ Bangkok ]Our seats couldn't have been better, orchestra front, just to the right of center. Close enough to see sweat, but not close enough to get hit by any.

It's a daring production, no doubt about that. Vietnam is a tough enough subject without trying to tackle it in a musical. You get serious skin and naughty words in the first three minutes, with adult themes and politics throughout. Frequent time shifts, from 1975 to 1978, back to 1975 and to 1978 again, with few illustrative cues. And an essentially non-existent denouement that abruptly closes the story.

[ Chopper ]The staging was ambitious, especially given the teeny tiny size of the NBC stage. The sets were more conspicuous, but intentionally so, and easy to appreciate. Of course the helicopter — although not actual size in this traveling production — and '57 Cadillac were just plain neat.

And while I always said I wasn't too crazy about the music since I first heard it a few years ago, I have to admit, the songs have been running through my head nonstop.

Jen liked it better than Phantom, and said it came close to deposing Les Miserables. And she's been on a Broadway kick ever since, going through my family's collection (including every Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ever recorded), running the stereo all day.

I liked it too, certainly unforgettable. The guys who played The Engineer (Joseph Foronda) and Chris (Greg Stone) were great, and even local boy Johnny Fernandez shined as bad guy Thuy. Jen and I both got weepy at least a couple of times.

But "Miss Saigon" just didn't dazzle me as well as the other two "big shows" that have come through town, and I don't think I was alone. I witnessed the shortest and most rushed curtain call in history that night, and Jen and one other woman were the only people attempting to give a standing ovation.

Much as I wanted to suspend disbelief and just drown in the story, the reviewer in me couldn't help but make mental ticks for the little things that bugged me.

Our Kim, Michelle Nigalan, for one. Instead of star Mika Nishida, we got Nigalan, who performs the role for matinees and on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The switch was unexpected and a little upsetting, since it was obviously set for the entire run. You'd think the tickets would be cheaper if you're not getting the same line-up praised in the papers or pushed in the ads.

And I'm sure Nigalan is a wonderful person, and she does come "straight from Broadway," but she at least had an off night (or a cold) when we went. Her voice was nasal and bordered on grating at times, and most of the the time it seemed like she was merely shouting. The sound guy was left to adjust the volume from intimite whisper to agonized cry.

Fortunately, the rest of my grumbles have to do with the musical itself.

The 'child in peril' element tops the list, and probably does so only because I'm now a parent myself. In screenwriting and dramatic circles, putting kids in danger is rightfully considered a cheap shot, easy manipulation. It's one thing to imply something might happen to Kim's son Tam, and another thing entirely to have Thuy lunge right at him with a big shiny knife.

And it wouldn't bother me so much if Tam played an actual part in the events around him. Instead he is quite literally just a prop, completely silent, at one point flipped and examined like a wooden artifact.

The pacing in general threw me off, too, even ignoring the time shifts and sudden ending. I mean, Kim and Chris — a prostitute and a reluctant John — meet in the fifth number, and by the end of the sixth, he's already fallen for her. Five minutes later, they're proclaiming undying love for each other.

And then there's Ellen, Chris' wife. She only really comes out in one song, in the third to the last number at that, pouring her heart out about the pain and conflict eating away at her soul. Except we don't really know her at all, so it's hard to really care. Up until that point she's just The Wife, more a wrinkle in the plot than a person.

Which is too bad, because I'd think her story might be just as compelling as Kim's if told right. And the short duet between the two women, "I Still Believe," is my favorite song in the whole show.

Finally, there's "Bui Doi," which opens the second (and much shorter) act, a song about the kids fathered by American servicemen during the war. "They are the living reminders of all the good we failed to do," the chorus croons, while a screen above shows faded film clips of multiracial orphans. "That's why we know, deep in our hearts, that they are all our children too!"

It just sticks out like a sore thumb, despite being written into the plot. It feels like a chest-thumping public service announcement shoehorned into a tragic story. I'm all for promoting social consciousness through the arts, but you've got to be a little more elegant than that.


After all that, you'd think I hated "Miss Saigon," and really I didn't. I memorized every word long ago, and still break out singing now and then. After relishing the fun of a night on the town, I guess I just jumped over into the fun of being an armchair critic.

Besides, at this point, Jen and I are so isolated from normal society, it's stupid to be picky. If offered, we'd easily go for a pair of tickets to a Yanni concert. Or even Zamfir.

© Ryan Kawailani Ozawa · E-Mail: · Created: 19 October 1999 · Last Modified: 31 October 1999