Saigon falls hard

Peoria Players overwhelmed by confusing visuals, toddler

The recent production of “Miss Saigon” at the Peoria Players Theatre created an all-too-real depiction of Vietnam, as the experience makes any sane person want to claw their way out to freedom.
Never before have I felt like a POW in a theater. The casualties of war were many, as a packed house came to see the painfully conflicted performance last Friday night.
Unassumingly enough, the set was decorated with the crimson glow of a Far East nightclub. Quaint paper lamps hung from the ceiling, and the left side of the stage displayed black and white collages of the fighting in Vietnam, while the right side featured similar pieces depicting passionate protests in America while the stern face of Richard Nixon looked on. With phrases on picket signs such as “U.S. OUT NOW,” the art drew an uneasy parallel between Vietnam and the current situation in Iraq.
But politics were last on the priorities list for the Peoria Players Theatre during the two-week run of “Miss Saigon.” It’s a shame, in a way. While Bush-bashing is as played out as the screenplay’s “impossible love story” plot, taking liberties with a renowned play is bound to tick off the season-ticket holders. As least some hammy satire would have added cheap fun to the themes of whores and war.
For the uninitiated, “Miss Saigon” is Claude-Michel Shonberg’s update of the famous Italian opera “Madame Butterfly,” and as such, nearly every line is delivered in song. Having to cut through melody to decipher lyrics and grasp the plot is one of the reasons “Miss Saigon” comes off as confusing and haphazard.
The story is there, though. A mild-mannered American soldier named Chris (Jarrod Hazzard) is out with his troops at a gentlemen’s club called Dreamland, where he meets the house’s newest girl, a demure 17-year-old named Kim (Lauren Meyers).
After a night together, he tries to pay her but she refuses, informing him he was her first. The two become aware this is much more than a one-night stand and promise to stay together. This couldn’t come at a worse time, as Saigon is about to fall to the Viet Cong.
What follows is a tangled journey in the lives of two people who ache to be reunited. War, greed and straight-up jealous guys – those all-too-familiar barricades – always seem to get in the way. The play’s climax, with soldiers being lifted off the roof of the Embassy as screaming Vietnamese pull at the fence, fails to take off like the helicopter did.
At a torturous 140 minutes, the show had time to explore new heights for Broadway’s 10th longest running play, but director Steve Bortolotti was all too content to viciously nail one foot to the floor and walk around for ideas.
Enter the irony. The play feels like a reloaded weapon when Kim reveals she has a daughter, Tam (a button-cute Ellen Hou). When estranged cousin-slash-arranged-husband (Bryan Blanks in a go-for-broke portrayal) pulls out his pistol in outrage over seeing the child, it’s the only heartfelt moment in the show. It’s ironic because this writer isn’t a fan of small children, but a mother throwing herself in front of her child saying “do what you want with me, but leave my child alone” will always be the most emotionally touching plot device in a screenplay, bar none.
“Miss Saigon” isn’t completely without merit, as songs such as “You Will Not Touch Him” from the Tam scene become lodged in your subconscious like a bullet. The music is Broadway in every sense of the word, resonating with marching band bravado and a strident desire to be heard.
Sadly, the garish visual elements drowned out the songs. The other good thing about the play was the seat from which I saw the whole mess, which provided me with access to every poorly executed scene change and character introduction.
I would sooner advise someone to vacation in Baghdad than see this miserable excuse for a play. And as hard as the audience must scrub their eyes afterward, it’s really the actors who suffer. Hazzard is unremarkable, but Meyers and Blanks are raw gold talents, and the constriction of the show has them upstaged by a 5-year-old. Lord willing, a grown-up Ellen Hou won’t have to remember being dragged into this mess. Strike this one from the resume, students of the stage.
As for me, I’m going to go get treated for post-traumatic stress.

Grade: D