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Play Review

Sunday, 29 September, 2013 10:48 PM

'Miss Saigon' Frags Detroit With Pop Opera Glee

Photo by Billy Bustamante

Kim sings a song as she prays to Buddha.


by Mike Wrathell


“Before I sink Into the big sleep I want to hear I want to hear The scream of the butterfly”

~~~~Jim Morrison of The Doors

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”

~~~~~William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell


DETROIT -- Before I went and saw “Miss Saigon” last night at The Fisher Theatre, I rented out Frédéric Mitterrand's 1995 film adaptation of “Madam Butterfly” as “Miss Saigon” is a pop opera adaptation of the classic opera. Giacomo Puccini wrote “Madam Butterfly,” which was originally a short story by John Luther Long. Mr. Long based the short story on a few things, including a novel by Pierre Loti and some stories his sister told him. It took me a few days to sit through “Madam Butterfly.” I can do that because I have Netflix. It was very intense. Ms. Ying Huang, who played Madam Butterfly or Cio-Cio San, is a classically-trained opera singer from Shanghai and gained international recognition with her breakout performance, much like Orville Mendoza should for his depiction of The Engineer in “Miss Saigon.” It takes me a while to digest a long opera; so you will forgive me, I hope, if I didn't want to watch it in one sitting. Sort of like my cat, Radar, who just had surgery due to poor digestion. That can happen when you eat grass. You're not a cow, little buddy! Get well soon, Radar!

Before watching “Madam Butterfly,” the most exposure I had to opera was basically watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. (Preview), (Preview) and

But, my heart is not made of stone, and I really found it intense and highly-recommend you rent out that version. Ying Huang was awesome, giving an utterly unforgettable performance.

Madam Butterfly” was set in 1904 Nagasaki, a year before Japan beat Russia's butt in the Russo-Japanese War. The final act was set in 1907, also in Nagasaki.

Miss Saigon” is set in 1975 in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok in 1978.

It mirrors “Madam Butterfly” pretty closely, but also breaks a lot of new ground. The opening scene at Dreamland, an after-hours club for American soldiers, reminded me of being in a top-notch stripclub on 8 Mile Road or Club 205 in Portland, or Scores in NYC – I mean, of what I heard they might be like, from, ah, an article in National Geographic.

Ms. Manna Nichols, who plays Kim, is the heroine in “Miss Saigon.” She is a practicing Buddhist, and prays quite a lot to Buddha. There are more Buddhists in Vietnam than any other religion; but according to the CIA World Factbook, over 80 percent of modern-day Vietnamese have no religion at all. That would make John Lennon smile, I suppose. Kim prays on her knees in a sort of comical and excessive way, gyrating her hands as they move up and down in a rhythmical way.

There is no such pop comedy about religion in “Madam Butterfly.” Cio-Cio-San is very devout about the worship of her ancestors. Her American husband, Lt. Pinkerton, tosses a doll of one of her ancestors in the air glibly and shockingly in the 1995 film. It's the most revealing moment regarding Pinkerton's character in the entire opera. Of course, at the end, he realizes the error of his ways, but it is too late – far, far too late. It is a poignant statement of how one culture can destroy another's culture without even trying consciously, just by suffocating the indigenous culture by its mere, though overwhelming, presence. Pinkerton's America doesn't protect Butterfly from his insensitive profligacy; so, in the end, she choses the honorable Japanese way out of the situation, committing seppuku – commonly known in America as hara-kiri. For dramatic effect, Pinkerton embraces her at the last moment and she dies in his faithless and fickle arms. Sgt. Christopher Scott is not portrayed quite so callously in “Miss Saigon.”

I would be remiss if I didn't laud the remarkable performance of Orville Mendoza, who plays The Engineer. It's he who introduces Kim, the true Miss Saigon, to Chris. The Engineer's counterpart in “Madam Butterfly” is Goro, who is a sort of marriage broker/pimp. In “Miss Saigon,” The Engineer also brokers the Buddhist-style marriage of Chris and Kim; but he's a full-time manager of Dreamland, and then, later, a wild nightclub in Bangkok that rivals Dreamland in its revelry. The Engineer's charismatic MC skills guide the pop opera from its wild beginning to its tragic climax. Mr. Mendoza truly is the master of this pop opera, handling every obstacle in his path with absolute aplomb. It'd be interesting to see Mr. Mendoza run a stripclub on 8 Mile Road for one night while he was in town.

Goro's role in “Madam Butterfly” was always secondary. The reworking of Goro into The Engineer works magnificently, making “Miss Saigon” a wild, thrill ride whose tragic end is sort of deux ex machina because of his masterful performance. However, I didn't mind at all; and I don't think anyone else did, either. It was that kind of breakout performance.

I'd say Ms. Manna Nichols performance of Kim was the second-best of the cast. Ms. Rona Figueroa, who plays Gigi Van Tranh, “a hardened Saigon stripper” per Wikipedia, and wins Dreamland's Miss Saigon Pageant at the beginning of the pop opera, definitely deserves special recognition – not only for her vivacious performance, but for being smokin' hot, to boot, lol! Ms. Figueroa has actually played Kim in the New York City production of “Miss Saigon;” but I think her vivacity actually fits the character of Gigi better – a role she nailed with an industrial nail gun. Rona Figueroa leads a band, by the way, called Quasilulu, whose music is available on iTunes and CDbaby. “Lush-rock grandness made for mountaintops, showcasing wailing vocals by Rona Figueroa and tempestuous electric violin solos by Lyris Hung.” Wow! I'm gonna check out that action. I bet it's high energy – like her. Maybe she'll check out my band, lol – Blue-Green Audumbla. We have two tunes on YouTube, in case ya'll are bored one night in Bangor or Sóc Trãng. More to come....

I must add that Manna Nichols was perfect as Kim; don't get me wrong. Kim, with her great love of Chris, a sergeant in the U. S. Army, and devotion to their son, Tam, evokes the spirit of the humble, meek and subterranean passion of Cio-Cio-San in “Madam Butterfly.

The casting for the Detroit production of “Miss Saigon” was flawless. My only admonition (I won't use the word “complaint.”) is one aired by my Harvard-educated buddy who accompanied me. The music was a bit on the loud side. I guess maybe the sound guy is losing his hearing, lol. Dude, ever hear of ear plugs?

Okay, to conclude, this is where I get to nag, to admonish. Of course, you should go see “Miss Saigon.” It's fun and uplifting and has oodles of pretty women dancing around lasciviously around a pole (notably Rona Figueroa's “Gigi”) -- I mean, around a great, classic story.... But, before you sink into the Big Sleep, please, please, please see “Madam Butterfly,” specifically, the 1995 film version with Ying Huang as Butterfly. Ms. Huang puts the “P” in poignant. (She has some music available, too, by the way.) It will enhance your reminiscences of “Miss Saigon,” too. Trust me. Oh, and eat your vegetables before you have your dessert!

Tickets for Miss Saigon range from $35 to $90 (includes parking and facility fees) and are now on sale at all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, online at or and at the Fisher Theatre box office. Tickets for the Special Open Captioned performance may be purchased in person at the Fisher Theatre box office or by phone at 313-872-1000, ext.0. A limited number of premium seats will be available through Ticketmaster and at the box office.

Related Stories: Salt Lake City Surprise: 'The Book of Mormon' Thumps The Fisher in Detroit; REVIEW: 'LeCage Aux Folles' is fabulous at Detroit's Fisher Theatre; REVIEW: 'Beauty and the Beast' is entertaining at Detroit's Fisher Theatre


Photo credit: Bob Compton Photography

Chris sings a song after his first night of passion with Kim.


Photo by Billy Bustamante

Kim, "Miss Saigon," sings a song as she cares for Tam, her son with Chris, an American G.I.


Photo credit: Bob Compton Photography

The Engineer, Orville Mendoza (pictured far right), runs Dreamland, an after-hours nightclub, in Saigon.


Photo credit: Bob Compton Photography

"Miss Saigon" features a poignant scene depicting the fall of Saigon.








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