Through Sept. 29
4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington
tickets start at $40
When “Miss Saigon” ran on Broadway in the ‘90s, there was big buzz surrounding the production’s life-sized helicopter.
The audacious prop was used to recreate the iconic photo depicting the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the Viet Kong when hordes of terrified pro-American Vietnamese fought for spots on a few C.I.A. aircrafts taking off from rooftops. Those who were left behind knew they’d likely be executed. For Signature Theatre’s version, director Eric Schaeffer — in his typical paring down fashion — merely suggests a helicopter, retaining the suspenseful element while losing the impractical spectacle.
From the composers who gave the world “Les Miserables” (Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil), the hugely successful “Miss Saigon” is a hard driving, sung through, rock opera based on Puccini’s 1904 classic “Madama Butterfly.” Its eclectic, ballad-heavy score is served beautifully here by a talented cast and a stellar 15-person orchestra tucked away on a perch behind corrugated metal panels. Despite some cloying spots and clunky lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., the music works. Memorable tunes include “The Heat Is On,” “I Still Believe,” “Why God Why?” and “The American Dream.”
Signature’s Schaeffer (who is gay) has also halved the 40-person Broadway cast, allowing his take to focus more intimately on the musical’s love story: U.S. Marine Chris (likable Gannon O’Brien) temporarily rescues wide-eyed, Vietnamese bar-girl Kim (vocal powerhouse Diana Huey) from a life of prostitution. Saigon falls and Chris goes home to Atlanta where he marries. Unknown to Chris, Kim has given birth to their son. Kim does what she has to stay alive, driven by the desire to one day reunite as a family. Eventually, Chris and his wife travel to Vietnam to meet the boy. A happy ending for all is hard to imagine.
But the best scenes of Signature’s “Miss Saigon” take place in Saigon’s sleazy hooker bar Dreamland and (later) a similar joint in Bangkok. It’s in a dimly lit, alcohol-fueled Dreamland that war-weary Marines and desperate Vietnamese civilians come together against a backdrop of feverish partying. And it comes off splendidly in Signature’s not huge MAX Theatre.
Dreamland is the domain of the Engineer, a host/pimp played by the unctuous and terrifically entertaining Thom Sesma (who played the role in the show’s second national tour). He bullies a chorus of sexy bar girls led by experienced Gigi (Cheryl Daro). The eye-catching Daro makes a big impression singing “The Movie In My Mind,” a dream about a new life in America, but unfortunately her part essentially ends there. The rest of the cast includes Erin Driscoll as Ellen, Chris’ outwardly sedate spouse. Chris Sizemore is Chris’ Marine buddy who after the war works to reunite Vietnam-born Amerasian children with their American fathers. Christopher Mueller plays menacing Thuy, an unpleasant figure from Kim’s past.
“Miss Saigon” can be melodramatic and overwrought — it’s not for everyone. But Signature offers an opportunity to see it done particularly well.