"Miss Saigon," whose helicopter has landed for a brief run at the Warner Theatre, is built on elements that are instantly familiar. Loosely based on Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," the story takes on the political and cultural turmoil of 1975 Saigon as well as the plight of children born to Vietnamese mothers and generally absent American GI dads.
But the tragedies of "Miss Saigon" revolve around a more tired premise: love at first trick.
Blink and you'll miss the connection established between Kim (Jennifer Paz), a 17-year-old peasant whose parents' deaths forced her into prostitution, and Chris (Alan Gillespie), a soldier whose friend insists on buying him some company before they ship back to the States. In director Mitchell Lemsky's vision, it's just a soulful gaze and a slow dance at the bawdy and brightly colored club Dreamland before Chris and Kim are belting out "Sun and Moon," which asks the question the audience may be wondering about as well: "How in the light of one night / Did we come so far?"
But "Miss Saigon" insists that their love is true, surviving three years and many miles before the show's tragic end.
Luckily, this production offers solid performances, vibrant set pieces and terrific musical numbers that should satisfy even the cranks in the audience (though that also requires overlooking facile rhymes such as "Back when I was a different man . . . The feelings locked behind a dam / That kept me there in Vietnam").
The score, written by "Les Miserables" creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and performed by an 11-piece orchestra, is heavy on the soaring ballads, with the occasional pop-inspired song to break up all the angst.
There's not a weak link among the cast members, but Paz is a standout here, lending Kim grit and strength that belie the actress's slight frame. (And despite direction that has Kim giving her illegitimate son, played by Jonathan Wade, a death-grip hug seemingly 100 times in every scene in which he appears.) The production's energy comes courtesy of Johann Michael Camat, whose performance as the greedy, slimy Engineer -- a charismatic role akin to "Cabaret's" Emcee -- steals the show in numbers such as "If You Want to Die in Bed" and the shamelessly capitalistic "The American Dream." The Engineer, essentially a pimp, gets Andreane Neofitou's most garish costumes, all Crayola-colored pants and shirts unbuttoned to there.
Also impressive is the visual lushness of this touring production, including a gorgeous scene involving a battle between ornate, parade-size tiger and dragon puppets as well as the infamous helicopter arrival: It appears, looking quite realistic, at the top of the stage courtesy of 3-D projection and chopper sounds, and though the moment is fleeting, the effect is pretty cool.
Less successful is the muddled handling of "Saigon's" politically minded subplots, including the Engineer's imprisonment and the shifting allegiance of Thuy (the one-named actor Tadeo), to whom Kim was betrothed. But it's ultimately of little consequence, because here, love's the thing -- and even if you don't entirely believe in it, you may still find yourself entertained.
Miss Saigon. Music, Claude-Michel Schonberg; lyrics, Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil. Directed by Mitchell Lemsky. Musical direction by Kevin Casey. Choreography, Jodi Moccia; costumes, Andreane Neofitou; set, Adrian Vaux; lighting, Charlie Morrison; sound, Lucas J. Corrubia Jr. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Nov. 14 at Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. Call 202-397-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com.