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'Miss Saigon' Travels with Coppers and Cadillacs

By Joel M. Rosenberg
Staff Reporter

Miss Saigon is billed as "The Classic Love Story for Our Time." If you know anything about the plot, you know that something's wrong-either the statement, or our time.

One of the most elaborate musicals in history, Miss Saigon opened at the Wang Theatre last Wednesday, and will play until February 28. And like most big things that make their way around here, it's worth seeing, although it certainly isn't flawless.

The story goes like this: Chris (Brien Keith Fisher) is an American soldier in Vietnam who falls in love with Kim (Elizabeth Paw), a farm-fresh hooker turning her first trick. Like any "classic" love story, Chris can't get her out of the country, and when he returns to the states, he leaves her behind to bear a bastard son Tam (Shara Batson) he knows nothing about.

Starting over with a new life and new wife Ellen (Andrea Rivette), Chris often says "Kim" in his sleep and is awoken by nightmares of 'Nam. When he gets word about Tam he takes Ellen to Bangkok to find his past, only to decide once there that they'll financially support mother and child from the United States, and won't be taking Kim and Tam back any time soon. And here's the largely unfulfilling ending: She kills herself to force them to take Tam.

Fisher, backed by a hulking set of lungs but lacking the emotion expected from a vet returning East amid such circumstances, does a decent job as Chris. Given his homely wife Rivette, you almost wonder why he doesn't take a chance with Kim, nicely played by Paw. And seeing the three-year-old Batson, without any lines but with lots of charisma for a little kid, you wonder why they at least don't rescue this adorable person who would so greatly benefit from what America has to offer.

The idea of American idealism has an interesting twist in this show, beautifully exemplified by The Engineer (Joseph Anthony Foronda), who has an incidental yet leading role in the show as Kim's pimp/hustler who is a capitalist swamped in communism. Trying to make a buck wherever he can, he's the one who helped inform Chris of Tam by writing to the American embassy, seeing Tam as his ticket to the West. "A system that works," is how he praises the U.S.system when Chris actually shows up. He also calls America "mankind's playground,"and sings the final show-stopper "The American Dream" along with kickline and on-stage 1959 Cadillac that descends from the sky. Interestingly, it is in fact the capitalist American Dream that makes the triumphant set, including the Cadillac and the infamous computer-operated, life-sized helicopter (piloted by the dummy Virgil) economically feasible. Just an observation.

The Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schnberg collaboration, of Les Miserables fame, moves along nicely, and has a good mix of singing and dancing. The set, in addition to being visually stunning, is cleverly designed to make changes seamless, in the Les Mis tradition. And the lighting is quite effective as a reflection of the mood, particularly during the moments of high action (like when the chopper descends).

But the production ultimately falls short, mostly because of the ending. It seems to me that they got bored of writing this story as time wore on, and they eventually decided how to wrap it up quickly. It misses the mark slightly with the pseudo-open ending, which comes quite abruptly. Since the characters are a bit underdeveloped, it lacks the bite that great stories have, and instead relies on the sights and sounds of the set and music to carry the show. While almost successful, another 20 minutes might have helped.

Overall, this touring cast of 43 is strong enough to fill the theatre, and the set incredible enough to see first-hand (it takes 17 trucks to move this show), that you should try to catch it while it's convenient. As far as it being a quintessential love story, I think that disregarding Kim's love for her son (which is a love story for any time), it's a poor commentary to call this foreign love triangle filled with broken hopes and dreams classic. It is, however, a classic musical.

Miss Saigon

through Saturday, February 28, 1997

The Wang Theatre

270 Tremont Street, Boston

Tickets $15.00-$65.00

available at the Wang Theatre box office and through Ticketmaster, 931-2787.