It's all David Henry Hwang's fault. In 1988, Hwang wrote an amazing play called M. Butterfly, a withering deconstruction of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, exposing it for the racist, sexist hymn to cultural imperialism that it is.
In case you don't remember that opera's plot, it concerns a young Japanese woman who falls for an American soldier and, after a couple of aria-filled acts, kills herself because her man don't love her no more. And it's thanks to Hwang's blistering attack that I can't ever see Madama Butterfly without thinking what tripe it is.
That goes triple for Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil's Miss Saigon. Because in updating a sexist, racist warhorse like Madama Butterfly to Vietnam in the mid-1970s, they've merely turned out a sexist, racist contemporary show that's idiotic on a geopolitical level as well.
The American solider is now a GI named Chris, and in the days just before the fall of Saigon he falls for the chaste Vietnamese prostitute Kim. (Oh yeah, Miss Saigon also trots out the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold trope.)
Chris and Kim spend a couple of weeks having sex and singing remarkably banal ballads to each other, and then he leaves. It all comes to a comical head when Kim ends up having a kid, and Chris turns out to have an American wife who doesn't want a half-Asian child. Kim, naturally, kills herself because her man don't love her no more.
And I almost forgot -- there's a helicopter on stage, too.
Besides emphasizing the point that God really messed up by putting procreation in the hands of heterosexuals, Miss Saigon exists only as a hangover from the "popera" musical trend of the '80s.
Pittsburgh CLO stages a production that is serviceable enough, and director Barry Ivan gets points for keeping it moving at such a brisk pace ... though the herky-jerky scene changes need to be rethought.
Ma-Anne Dionisio sings the role of Kim with power and considerable anguish, but Aaron Ramey never manages to breathe stage life into the wooden role of Chris.
Kevin Gray played The Engineer the last time CLO staged Miss Saigon, and I remember his performance as all slithering evil and charm. Over the ensuing decade, however, Gray has added so much shtick and business that he appears to be channeling Mandy Patinkin ... and not in a good way. When that happens, you usually tell the actor to scale it back and trust in the material. Good luck with that, Mr. Gray.
Miss Saigon continues through Sun., June 20. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-456-6666
- Aaron Ramey and Ma-Anne Dionisio in the Pittsburgh CLO's Miss Saigon