Leave behind “Madama Butterfly,” the Puccini opera from which most of the plot of “Miss Saigon” was lifted. Don’t compare this musical to the great “Les Misérables,” the previous show by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. Set aside memories of the special effects and Tony-winning performances in the 1991 Broadway production.
Eighteen years after that run closed on Broadway and 44 years after the United States withdrew from Vietnam — a decision at the heart of this story, metaphorically and literally — we can appreciate ‘Miss Saigon” more clearly. The scaled-down tour that came to Belk Theater Tuesday in the Broadway Lights season reveals enduring strengths and weaknesses.
The creators’ most audacious decision remains the depiction of America as a nation with needless blood on its hands and a guilty conscience it refuses to heed. Tam, son of Vietnamese bar girl Kim and departed American G.I. Chris, faces ostracism from the Vietnamese for bearing the DNA of the enemy.
At the same time, the pimp who dubs himself The Engineer celebrates the U.S. culture of greed, hucksterism and sexual immaturity in “The American Dream.” The number’s timelier than ever and disturbingly effective. Yet this paean to vulgarity comes near the end of a three-hour show where huge emotions roll over us in unceasing waves, unrelieved by lightness or humor.
Only two songs out of two dozen begin and end quietly; the rest turn into anthems that hammer us with Wagnerian force. Nor do Boublil and Schönberg know when to stop. They’ve written an 11th-hour number for Ellen, Chris’ American wife, but we don’t need it: We’ve barely heard from her up to then, and cutting it wouldn’t change the narrative appreciably.
In some ways, the story improves on the libretto Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa wrote for Puccini. Butterfly, a 14-year-old innocent, gets seduced and dumped by Pinkerton, who sniggers at his irresponsibility. Chris genuinely loves Kim and tries to get her out of Saigon before it falls to the Communists, and Kim has more purpose and self-awareness than Butterfly.
The French authors invent two significant characters: The Engineer, even more of a self-serving rat than Thenardier in “Misérables,” and Thuy, the dogmatic Vietnamese soldier who claims to love Kim. Yet while “Misérables” never overstays its welcome — the diverse cast of characters gives it variety — “Miss Saigon” feels long, because it throws everyone but The Engineer and Kim into the shade for significant stretches.
If you are not already a believer, this version of the 2017 Broadway revival might make you one. I never expect to see the Engineer played with more greedy ferocity than by Red Concepción, or Kim embodied with more strength and dignity than by Emily Bautista. (Myra Molloy takes the part at certain performances.) Compelling singing from Anthony Festa as Chris, J. Daughtry as his pragmatic pal John, Jinwoo Jung as Thuy and Stacie Bono as Ellen keep us connected to them.
If you’re wondering, there’s still a helicopter — more modest than in the original, but aided by lighting and sound effects to satisfy people who insist on a chopper. It’s not nearly as memorable as screened footage of half-American kids in orphanages, waiting for someone to treat them with kindness for the first time.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
When: Through Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Running time: 175 minutes, including one intermission.
Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.