‘Miss Saigon’ revival struggles against perceived perfection of the Lea Salonga original

Eva Noblezada and Alistair Brammer as lovers Kim and Chris torn apart by conflict. Photos by Matthew Murphy

Eva Noblezada and Alistair Brammer as lovers Kim and Chris torn apart by conflict. Photos by Matthew Murphy

By Cristina DC Pastor

In a mild Spring evening almost 20 years ago, my family watched “Miss Saigon on Broadway with my octogenarian father.

It was the second Broadway show for dad, and he was just as excited. He knew of Lea Salonga as this little girl who’s on television with Herbert Bautista. Tacky as that may sound then but that was dad’s recollection of Lea. He was curious to see how she developed into this fine theater actress worthy of Broadway.

We were all enjoying the songs and the story until that dramatic scene where – spoiler alert here – a loud gunshot was heard. My dad stood up and screamed, “No!” My husband, daughter and I all looked at one another in aghast, wishing to change seats. My father was in tears, moved by the poignancy of a little Vietnamese boy about to leave Saigon to join his father in America.

I was waiting for that heartbreaking scene again as I watched the “Miss Saigon” revival. This time, Eva Noblezada plays Kim and Alistair Brammer is Chris, both of them very good for their roles. It had that same punch-in-the-gut feel as in Lea’s time which prompted that knee-jerk scream from my father that turned heads embarrassingly toward my family. “Miss Saigon” then and now remains one of my favorite theater dramas, along with “M. Butterfly” and “Les Miserables.”

Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer

Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer

Not to compare
To call Brammer the ‘scene stealer’ would be to understate his spirited acting and near-perfect singing. Listening to his “The Last Night of the World” with eyes closed – which I did — brought tears and evoked memories of loves lost although not necessarily because of war.

Noblezada’s voice was inconsistent in some numbers. It sounded soft in some parts and low like a man’s in others. In “The Movie in My Mind” with Rachelle Ann Go, she found her footing, her voice emerging and complementing Go’s (as bar girl Gigi) powerful vocals. This is one of the production’s memorable scenes.

I found the role of The Engineer, competently portrayed by Jon Jon Briones, a bit of a cliché. Yet it’s a typical Broadway staple, having a villain sing a bouncy, offbeat number, usually one that you remember as you walk out the theater and hum all the way to your train. Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Soul” in “Little Mermaid” and King Herod’s If you are the Christ, the great Jesus Christ… in “Jesus Christ Superstar” are excellent archetypes. Briones’ “The American Dream” had that same effect on the audience, some humming on their way out the door.
I thought his acting was energetic but not very nuanced. For someone who has played the role for almost three decades, the acting appeared like ‘going through the motions’ routine. Still appealing, but kind of old.

The friends we saw on our way out the theater were unanimous: Lea was the better actress and singer. However, they did not discount that Eva as Kim moved them to tears and immersed them in that episode in history when Saigon fell, or depending on one’s perspective, the Vietnamese were able to unify their country.

As all revivals go, it was not going to be perfect for the new cast. They will always struggle against the perceived perfection of a Lea Salonga, the gold standard for that role. Eva and the rest of the cast understand there is no way they can satisfy the audience’s expectations.

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