If you’re looking for a light laugh or some stress relief from a hard week’s work, Dallas Summer Musicals' Miss Saigon is not for you. The musical embraces heavy themes that leave your heart pumping, your eyes tearing and your mind racing.
This year’s run at Music Hall at Fair Park (which ends on May 26) is beautifully executed, with a cast that displays the kind of talent and raw emotion that leave even the most jaded of critics with no cause for complaint. The main role of Kim is played by Emily Bautista, who understudied the part in Broadway’s 2017 revival and has recently toured with Lés Miserables as Eponine. Bautista showed a perfect balance of tortured and youthful. Her vocals excelled along with her acting as she belted the musical’s timeless ballads with unwavering feeling, at times while clutching a little boy to her chest.
The other notable cast member was, of course, the Engineer. Red Concepcion has a meaty résumé of his own and blended into the character of the Engineer seamlessly. His character was so believable that one couldn’t imagine Concepcion not actually parading around in a shiny red suit in real life. But perhaps the most flawless members of the production were the lighting and effects crew. Scenes were executed with breath-stopping lighting and sound.
Miss Saigon may be a classic, but its last U.S. tour ended in 2000. So to those unfamiliar with the tragedy, perhaps a warning is in order. There are two songs, particularly the opening scene, that portray a brothel with unapologetic sexuality. Let’s just say it’s not the kind of scene you want to see with your mom or kids.
“I don’t remember it being that bad,” says Marie Arcellana (who is this author's mother), who had seen the production with the original cast in the Philippines about 18 years ago. Nevertheless, she was oohing and aahing and gasping through most of the musical.
“I remember when this (Claude-Michel) Schonberg and the other writers came to Manila to look for Miss Saigon,” Arcellana mused. “When they found Lea Salonga, she was just a baby.”
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Before the curtain drew for the second act, Arcellana pulled up the YouYube video of the original Miss Saigon’s first audition on her phone. Salonga is the pride of Filipino Americans, having been selected at 17 to debut the role of Kim after the creators of the musical did a multinational search. She gave her singing voice to the Disney princesses Mulan and Jasmine in the original Disney movies and was the first Asian woman to win a Tony and to play Eponine in Lés Miserables.
“I remember performing with Lea Salonga, and she was so quiet, she would just sit alone until it was time for her to sing,” says Arcellana, recalling her own days of being a dancer and her many encounters with Salonga. “There were certain things Lea did that changed the musical, like I heard she didn’t want to be in a bikini in the bar scene because either she didn’t want to or her mom didn’t want her to, so that’s why they have her in the white cheongsam.”
Following a year that saw movies like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before putting Asian characters at the forefront of American blockbusters, this production of Miss Saigon was delivered in the perfect time, not only because of the growth in Asian representation in the media, but because of the musical’s timely themes.
Set in the late '70s, during the Vietnam War, the musical debuted in the late '90s. But over 20 years after its original production, the musical fits into today’s zeitgeist just as easily. The story of Kim and her American lover deals with issues like immigration, the search for an American dream, women’s rights and other modern hot topics, told in a story that demands pause and reflection. The cast and crew enhanced the telling of these stories, without distracting from their message.