Friday, December 01, 2017

Miss Saigon and M Butterfly

What are the odds that I'd see two different takes on Madama Butterfly in rapid succession? Pretty high, it turns out: they're both running in revival here, I have a student writing an honors thesis about Asian stereotypes on Broadway, I'm teaching a seminar about musicals and American politics that we had money to spend on tickets for, I dig Julie Taymor. It happens that the Puccini original is in repertory at the Met this season; Wendy suggested I hit that, too, and make this writeup a trifecta. Beautiful though the opera is, I've officially hit my saturation point with this damn story line, so no, I'm not going to the Met and you can't make me.

Matthew Murphy
Miss Saigon is--and this is putting it very nicely--not one of my favorite musicals. I saw the original production the week I graduated from college, and it failed to grab me; I spent most of the show wondering distractedly what the hell I was going to do with my life, pausing occasionally to seethe over a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who couldn't keep his pants on for five minutes whenever I went anywhere without him. Sure, a few scenes yanked me to attention: the one with the helicopter, you bet, and that other one in which Jonathan Pryce, by that point refreshingly free of yellowface and eye prosthetics, humped a cadillac. Otherwise, though, the show didn't stay with me for long, and by "long" I mean "more than five minutes after I left the theater."

Seeing the revival 25 years later with a group of students roughly the age I was when I first saw it had its charms, for sure. Reception was mixed among them, but even the biggest critics remained awake during the show and did not sneak out at intermission, which translates as a raving success when it comes to class trips to venues of any kind. As an added bonus, most were genuinely thrilled when I suggested we take the empty seats in the front few rows to the right of the stage for the second act. It's no wonder: the very hugeness of the show is, without question, one of its major assets. Aside from the scenes involving large vehicles, there are enormous backdrops and huge musical numbers, some with acrobats and giant billowy flags, during which cast members gradually appear at tiered levels you didn't realize were there. And as a primer on the megamusical, Miss Saigon has just about every ingredient required: high emotion, universal themes, hummable songs, visual enormity, dazzling and often mechanized spectacle. I'd add, in this case, a nobly committed cast, a very talented Kim (Eva Noblezada), and a mesmerizingly good Engineer (Jon Jon Briones). Miss Saigon just isn't my bag--really, megamusicals in general just don't do it for me, but that's not to say that the production isn't done very, very well. If you like shiny romantic sappy bigness and don't mind two-dimensional characters that threaten to dip into outright stereotype, the show just might be yours.

Sara Krulwich

The original production of M Butterfly stayed with me a lot longer than Miss Saigon did, and I was eager to revisit the show with Taymor at the helm, but I was disappointed by the revival. So, apparently, are a lot of people: the show was originally supposed to run through February, but is closing six weeks early. It's curiously flat, especially for a Taymor production. Not especially pretty to look at (though damn if that woman can't work wonders with a few carefully angled rays of soft, white light), the revival feels sluggish, talky, and distant. I wasn't especially impressed with Clive Owen, who I usually like a lot, and the added material does little more than make the show...feel...longer. While I appreciate the attempt on Hwang's part to subvert the Madama Butterfly story--and to toy, especially, with the stereotype of the fragile, delicate, passive Asian naif whose life is consumed with longing for the white western man--there's little else that really takes hold: no depth or nuance of character, no one especially likable or ultimately very interesting.

At least in my case, the best thing about seeing both shows was the opportunity it gave me to learn from my students. A few Asian-American kids in my seminar love Miss Saigon because they thrill at seeing representations of themselves--but they are also fully aware of and willing to criticize its many problems, oversights, assumptions, and caricatures. My honors student has written extensively about M. Butterfly; I wish the revival was, in the end, as brilliant as her reading of the play is. So while the two productions didn't amount to the most thrilling experiences I've ever had at the theater, the conversations I had with my students about the shows after having seen them were well worth the price of countless admissions. 

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