'Miss Saigon' a True Stage Spectacle

MISS SAIGON Musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Mr. Boublil (adapted from the Boublil French lyrics) and with additional material by Mr. Maltby. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Musical staging by Bob Avian.

PRECEDED by transatlantic casting crises, "Miss Saigon" has opened on Broadway to mixed reviews, opening-night protests, an advance sale of some $36 million, and with a new top ticket price of $100. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's view of America's Vietnam ordeal has been running in London for 19 months and is selling seats at the Broadway Theatre through 1991. A theatrical event by any definition.

The creators - and their American collaborator Richard Maltby Jr. - have devised a historical-fictional panorama. "Miss Saigon" begins with the 1975 fall of Saigon to the Communists and thereafter switches dizzily back and forth in time and place: Saigon in 1975, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 1978, the United States and Bangkok in 1978, back to Saigon in 1975, and to Bangkok again in 1978. The zig-zag narrative follows the course of untrue love as a latter-day Madama Butterfly loses the American serviceman with whom she has fallen in love.

In the "Miss Saigon" version, Kim (actress Lea Salonga), a newly arrived Saigon bar girl, loses her heart to Chris (Willy Falk), the young American Marine who purchases her services. The pair are brought together by the Engineer (Jonathan Pryce), a sleazy pimp obsessed with finagling an entry into the US. In its own slick, pop-opera fashion, "Miss Saigon" follows the path of Puccini: a liaison which Kim naively formalizes with her version of a wedding ceremony; Chris's return home and marriage to an Ame rican girl; and the couple's eventual visit to Bangkok, where they encounter the son Kim has borne him.

The principal characters hold their own amid the tumultuous stage effects. First among them is Mr. Pryce as the Engineer. Whether kowtowing to his clients, bullying the brothel bar girls, or dreaming up schemes that will get him a passport to America, the flamboyantly clad British star gives a performance that is bravura all the way.

The eclectic, often florid score suits the emotional needs of the tragedy and is well served by a vocally strong cast. Miss Salonga, who sings beautifully, proves an irresistibly touching, courageous, and true-hearted Kim. (Kam Cheng plays the role at certain performances.) Other principals include Mr. Falk as Chris, Liz Callaway as his American wife, Hinton Battle as his service buddy who later espouses the cause of the Eurasian orphans, and Barry K. Bernal as Kim's hard-line Communist fiance. Four-yea r-old Brian R. Baldomero, as Kim's small son, wins a special hand at the company curtain calls.

Under the direction of England's Nicholas Hytner, "Miss Saigon" is a triumph of theatrical technology. Designer John Napier's mise en scene (lighted for full effect by David Hersey) spreads across the stage, enclosed within a framework of slat-like Venetian blinds. Set pieces appear and disappear instantly to accommodate the plot's many locales. For the spectacle-minded spectator, the show provides a $10 million treat, climaxed by the celebrated helicopter landing and takeoff as the beleaguered American s evacuate Saigon and leave behind their doomed Vietnamese allies.

The action is enlivened by such specialties as choreographer Bob Avian's splendid military drill routine by black-clad Viet Cong warriors brandishing red flags as they pass in review before a huge gilt statue of Ho. At an emotional extreme is the haunting film montage of Eurasian children fathered and abandoned by departing Americans. "Miss Saigon" is an expertly calculated piece of theater - worthy to stand beside the Boublil-Schonberg "Les Miserables."

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