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Theater Review: “Miss Saigon”

Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

The Vietnam War in the 1970s was (to say the least) controversial. Perhaps fittingly, the musical “Miss Saigon” – set at the end of that war – was born in controversy as well. But unlike that war, the show has outlasted its critics.

Broadway San Diego brings “Miss Saigon” back through July 14 at San Diego Civic Theatre.

The plot is borrowed from Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly,” set in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, about the romance between and American naval officer and a Japanese woman he marries for convenience.

“Saigon” moves and updates the action to the last years of the Vietnam War.

Neither show is about war, but rather about the military/political reality of the foreigner who engages and then abandons the native. Here the protagonist is Chris (Anthony Festa), a Marine who takes a local girl as lover, later to leave both her and their child when U.S. troops withdraw.

The local girl in question is Kim (Emily Bautista) – 17, suddenly orphaned, and reduced to making a living in a bar by the owner, a pimp and wheeler-dealer called The Engineer (Red Concepción). Chris is spirited to the bar by best friend John (J. Daughtry). There he meets the ill-at-ease Kim. Before he knows it, John has paid the price for her for the night and sent them off together, leading to a “South Pacific” style romance with the same consequences.

Chris’ intentions are good, but the fall of Saigon and the Americans’ hasty departure are imminent and soon, the show’s signature helicopter will descend to pick up evacuees and Chris will leave, in a chaotic scene in which chain-link fencing separates Americans from Vietnamese, freedom from an unknown future.

“Miss Saigon” boasts a fine cast – the principals are particularly memorable – but the show will probably always be remembered primarily for that descending helicopter, a feat of theatrical trickery that always works.

Oh, about that controversy: after its 10-year run in the West End, the show almost didn’t open on Broadway due to a huge objection from Actors’ Equity Association, which refused to allow Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, to play the Vietnamese/French character of the Engineer. When producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show, Actors’ Equity relented.

“Miss Saigon” has its charms, but for my money the quality of the music is not one of them. Call me an old sorehead, but for my money, “Miss Saigon” sounds more like rap than music. I like to go home humming tunes. I guess I’m too accustomed to Puccini.

But any show that can boast a 10-year run and is the 13th longest-running Broadway musical in history is doing something right.

“Miss Saigon” is worth seeing for that helicopter scene alone. And who knows, you might even like the music. I guarantee that you’ll like the cast and the tech work.

The details

“Miss Saigon” plays through July 14, 2019, at San Diego Civic Theatre, 3rd and B Streets, downtown.

Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

Tickets: (619) 570-1100 or broadwaysd.com