AURORA | The heat is still on in Saigon.
The rotor blades are still whirring. Dream Land is still a hive of sin and lechery. And the Engineer is still a magnetizing maestro of vice.
That “Miss Saigon” is still a touring production is disheartening. The divisive production is riddled with cultural cringes and less-than-politically-correct marvels, as many reviewers have lamented over the show’s 30-year lifespan. It’s one of Broadway’s worst-kept secrets that Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s work dwells on laurels with deep and well-watered roots in the era of The Actor President and acid wash jeans — not #MeToo.
Alas, here we are, spilling ink on a venerable cliche.
You know the take on the some 120-year-old tale: A wide-eyed teenager recently forced into sex work falls for an American G.I. in 1970s Saigon. Penned by the minds behind “Les Miserables” and based on a Giacomo Puccini opera, the two battle a series of tragedies — and the machinations of a devious pimp — as the fallout from the American war in Vietnam craters.
It’s not that the current touring production at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is poorly executed, or underwhelming. It’s not. As were its predecessors, the show is a spectacle of spectacles, wowing with improbably-sized sets, ensembles, musical numbers and talent.
Emily Bautista stuns as a woebegone Kim with a vocal range that must be heard to be believed. J. Daughtry as John and Anthony Festa as Chris are appropriately distraught Marines who also churn out impressive number after impressive number. And Red Concepción’s Engineer steps up, zeroing in on that tricky balance between odious captivation and pathetic pity.
Several of Richard Maltby’s lyrics — “To pay for my keep, I’m rounding up sheep to fleece here in Bangkok” — retain their clever wit, though there’s just something about elevating the hackneyed punchline of “ass-a-hoe” that feels too polluted to enjoy.
There were more than a few in the audience who just couldn’t revel in a show that, despite an ocean of outcry, has firmly set its claws into the canon. Instead of joining other patrons in the symphony of sniffles that swelled during the emotional apex — complete with a crescendo of handbag zippers to unveil packaged Kleenex — many sat blankly blinking.
The show nearly — nearly — veils its warts with stagecraft so fantastic it could give comb makers a run for their money due to its ability to quickly and regularly part one’s hair. A several-dozen-foot-tall bust of Bac Ho, a full platoon of soldiers and choreographed steps hammered out by a cadre of burlesque feather dancers are but a few of the breathtaking feats highlighted in this revival. They’re stunning. And in a truly musical’s musical — there’s nary a spoken word — all vocalists rightfully show their chops as musical theater virtuosos. The gajillion-part harmony emitted by a packed chorus belting “This is the hour” at the end of act one is a notable stand-out.
But glitter shouldn’t be an acceptable replacement for tolerance. When parsed from the myopia that often accompanies nostalgia, the show reveals itself for what it is: a hoary dinosaur ready to hit the penny slots in Atlantic City for the rest of its days, ideally far, far away from anywhere with an orchestra pit, stage lights or mezzanine.
While the extravaganza will, indeed, leave stars in your eyes, lipstick tubes and pigs should be kept apart for a reason.
And seriously, no helicopter?
3 out of 5 stars
Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19 through Sept. 22 with additional shows beginning at 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts. 1101 13th St., Denver, CO 80204. Ticket prices vary. Visit denvercenter.org for additional information.