`Les Miz' Team's New Musical Gets Warm Reception in London

Composer and lyricist hope `Miss Saigon' - inspired by `Madama Butterfly,' - will prove their first smash hit wasn't a fluke. THEATER: REVIEW

`IT'S not a judgment or a statement for or against the Vietnam War, or for the Vietnamese people, or against the American people,'' insisted composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, when I spoke with him and collaborator/librettist Alain Boublil. ``It is only a musical show.'' The Frenchman was referring to ``Miss Saigon,'' the newest stage creation from the phenomenally successful ``Les Mis'erables'' team. Boublil and Schonberg were, at the time of our conversation, putting the finishing touches on the book of their latest project, shortly before it went into rehearsal.

The show's inspiration, they explained, came both from the Puccini opera ``Madama Butterfly'' and the 19th-century French novel ``Madame Chrysanthemum,'' by Pierre Loti, which spawned the opera as well as a previous short story and play. This 1980s incarnation, however, was to be set not in Nagasaki, but Saigon at the close of the American presence in the Vietnam war.

``It will be - we hope! - what `West Side Story' was to `Romeo and Juliet,'' observed the librettist.

On a personal level, though, Boublil and Schonberg hoped for something more. ``Les Miz,'' as the show has affectionately become known, succeeded worldwide beyond their wildest dreams. But, they explained, they wanted to prove to themselves, as much as anyone else, that their first major hit wasn't a fluke - that they were a stage-musical duo to be reckoned with.

And so they have. The audience response to ``Miss Saigon,'' following its recent opening at the West End's Theater Royal Drury Lane, was little short of rapturous. Four years ago, London critics gave ``Les Miz'' the thumbs-down, even though it has gone on to set box-office records on several continents, but this newest Boublil-Schonberg offering, with an occasional grumble, has reaped accolades.

The significance of ``Miss Saigon'' lies in its intelligence. While musical theater is not the obvious place for dealing with complicated feelings and ideas, the show faces some of the social issues raised by American involvement in Vietnam, and does so with enormous impact.

The curtain rises on a raunchy Saigon bar, circa 1975 - ``Dreamland'' it's incongruously called. American GIs are, for ``the price of a Big Mac,'' taking their pick from among a group of scantily clad Vietnamese ladies of the night. Kim (Lea Salonga) is the innocent newcomer to the game. She is purchased for GI Chris (Simon Bowman), a basically decent guy who has been maneuvered into the deal by a soldier buddy.

Inevitably, Chris and Kim fall in love, and here the tales takes a sharp departure in spirit from Puccini. Through a sequence of unfortunate events culminating in the famous helicopter evacuation of American personnel from the Saigon embassy compound, the lovers are torn apart. Chris eventually marries an American girl. Three years later, Kim, now the mother of a young child, still touchingly waits for her lover to find them. Chris does return to Vietnam. And, after a tragic suicide by Kim, Chris and his wife take the boy back to America to raise as their own. It is the ultimate maternal sacrifice: Kim has given all to ensure a better life for her son.

The strengths of the show are many. Such a melodramatic yarn, told entirely through song without any spoken dialogue, could so easily have slipped into bathos, but it doesn't. There are times when it drifts dangerously near - when, for instance, news clips of actual Vietnamese-American orphans are projected onto an enormous screen. These moments, however, are conveyed with just enough restraint, and the show is retrieved by exceptionally sophisticated direction from Nicholas Hytner (well-known to Londoners for his extensive work in opera and stage, and currently an associate director of Britain's Royal National Theatre).

Excellent casting also bolsters the story's believability. In fact, in an international search rivaling the hunt for the definitive Scarlett O'Hara, Boublil, Schonberg, and British producer Cameron MacKintosh (``Cats,'' ``Phantom of the Opera,'' ``Les Mis'erables'') saw a string of girls, from Singapore to San Francisco, before finally settling on Miss Salonga, an 18-year-old Filipino, to play Kim.

And she is perfect, not only singing with emphatic clarity and sure flexibility in a range to match the score's variety, but acting with the utmost credibility. Her switch from naive village girl sweetly in love to protective, utterly determined mother is a performance of the highest order, both musically and dramatically.

Bowman's Chris is also just the right mix of expressive voice and sensitive acting. And Jonathan Pryce (highly acclaimed British stage actor and 1976 Tony Award winner for ``Comedians''), who plays an engineer, threatens to steal the show but doesn't quite manage it, because the rest of the production is so well-balanced, with all the principal players delivering superb performances.

Two other indisputable stars of the show are set designer John Napier and lighting designer David Hersey (the team from ``Cats,'' ``Starlight Express'' and ``Les Mis'erables''). They have created a stage atmosphere that augments the shifting places and moods of the show with subtle brilliance. When, for example, the nearly life-size helicopter descends to pluck the last American solidiers from the desperate throng destined to be left behind, it's a visual tour de th'e^atre, a rare moment of stage magic.

With the help of Broadway lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., Boublil has turned out sensitive lyrics that, for the most part, carry the story well. Wit and an emotional truth are often in evidence. Schonberg's score, although in the pop idiom, lacks any really arresting tunes, but is nevertheless varied and always highly successful in establishing the mood.

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