As calamitous as that war was, it still managed to inspire a Broadway musical, Miss Saigon, which became famous for a single special effect, the golly-gee! whop-whopping appearance of a helicopter onstage. Now, in the midst of another armed adventure rashly undertaken by the U.S., Beck Center is revisiting this pop opera created by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the guys who penned Les Misérables. For all the regrettable parallels between the Vietnam War and the current bloody escapade in Iraq, there is one major difference: We have to assume there's never going to be a Broadway musical titled Miss Baghdad (women dressed in head-to-toe burkas don't make an enticing chorus line). And for that we must be eternally grateful.
Miss S. is essentially a transcultural love story, inspired by Madame Butterfly and focusing on a naive Asian bar girl, Kim, who is romanced and knocked up by Chris, a rather depressed (weren't they all?) American serviceman. Taking place in 1975, before and after the fall of Saigon, this show revels in contrasts, playing the delicacy of the young couple's affection against the rampant sleaze of prostitution and corruption. The latter is embodied by the Engineer, a mixed-race manipulator who runs the bar Kim works in and who will do anything for a buck.
While the show's music -- frequently jejune lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Boublil, an often mechanically mundane score by Schonberg -- is a bit of a trial, this production manages to surmount it with honest, nuanced performances by Robin Lee Gallo and Connor O'Brien as the star-crossed lovers. As Kim, Gallo seems as fragile as a Limoges figurine, but her voice is rich with her doomed love for Chris and hope for her newborn son. O'Brien, looking like a more pleasant Quentin Tarantino, is a powerfully hypnotic singer who spins many of the lyricists' dime-store rhymes into gold. Also affecting is Maggie Stahl-Wirfel, who conveys wounded confusion as Chris's stateside wife, Ellen -- especially as she rescues her mawkishly written solo, "Now That I've Seen Her."
The Beck troupe falls just short in some other areas, however -- notably in the character of the Engineer. Paul Floriano, an actor of enormous capability, settles into a cozily tacky persona that never seems threatening or malicious enough, thereby muting the edgy strength of this fascinating character. The Engineer should truly horrify even as he strokes his stooges -- and the audience -- with his gutter charms. Floriano seems more like a greeter at a seedy nightclub in North Ridgeville than the master of ceremonies at "The Last Night of the World." As a result, his rousing number at the end of the show, "The American Dream," amuses rather than thrills, since it hasn't evolved out of this character's demented psyche. In a similar vein, Ian Atwood is solid as Chris's military friend John, but he could take more emotional risks with his song about the American-fathered babies left behind in Vietnamese orphanages.
Director Scott Spence has wisely taken a pass on trying to redo the monumental helicopter effect from the original (it's just represented by searchlights panning from above) and instead has highlighted the human interaction between Kim and Chris. The choreography by Martin Cespedes and costuming by Alison Hernan are also uncluttered and effective. But simpler is not better in all regards: Erik M. Seidel's lighting and Don McBride's smoothly operating turntable set are long on efficiency, but short on eye candy, offering precious little Southeast Asia ambiance by way of blazing orange sunrises or purplish sunsets. Indeed, the entire proceeding, except for a couple of scenes, seems awash in khaki and gray, bordered by large, Oriental-looking panels of the kind you might find propped in front of the busboy station in a Chinese restaurant.
It's worth noting that Miss Saigon opened on Broadway back in 1991, while the first President Bush was waging war in the Middle East, and now here we are again, with the crusade of George the Second. There are lessons to be learned in the overlapping ironies of this timing and in the overweening arrogance of preemptive aggression. And let's hope that we learn them before we are enticed to attend another musical titled Miss Tehran or, heaven forfend, Miss Pyongyang.