STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Old Friends -- Lea Salonga and Miss Saigon

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Old Friends -- Lea Salonga and Miss Saigon Add Lea Salonga's name to the list of theatrical luminaries who have returned to their shows and reprised their roles.

Add Lea Salonga's name to the list of theatrical luminaries who have returned to their shows and reprised their roles.

It's an old tradition. You've heard of that April night in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was shot at Our American Cousin? Starring in the show that night -- seven years after he had opened the show in New York - was one E.A. Sothern, once again playing the effeminate Lord Dundreary who turns up his nose at the ever-so-humble and rough-hewn poor relative. Sothern did it in the 1871 revival and the 1872 tour, before bringing it back later in the year for another New York stint.

After doing such less-than-classic fare as Barwise's Book and Burrampooter, Sothern did another production of Cousin in 1873. In 1876, he did the title role in David Garrick -- in rep with Cousin. He did The Crushed Tragedian and The Hornet's Nest in 1877, but when the latter met with a disastrous reception, he did a show called Lord Dundreary. It was -- you guessed it -- a slight rewrite of Our American Cousin. While he sat out the 1878 revival, he was back for the 1879 production.

James O'Neill began his run in The Count of Monte Cristo in 1883. He toured it almost exclusively until 1898, when he did a play called When Greek Meets Greek. Within the year, though, he was back in Monte Cristo, and, by the turn of the century, had played it more than 4,000 times.

Many a critic reported that O'Neill could have been right up there with such great classical actors as Edmund Kean and Edwin Booth had he not stayed stuck in his flamboyant, romantic but ultimately empty role. And, of course, we know the waste from his son Eugene's Long Day's Journey into Night, where James Tyrone rues how he wasted his promising career for the money awarded him if he'd take out the show for one more run. What Sothern and O'Neill gave their latter-day audiences is something we'll never know, but from our own theatregoing experiences, many of us can report that role returnees often don't come close to recapturing the original magic. How can they be expected to? While they're waiting to go on, some of them must be thinking, "I can't believe I'm back doing this again." (Read: Joel Grey in the 1987 Cabaret.)

The original Annie, Get Your Gun was before my theatregoing time, so I can't say for sure that Ethel Merman and Ray Middleton kissed. But I can report that 20 years later, in a revival inelegantly dubbed "Granny Get Your Gun," Merman and the decades-younger Bruce Yarnell only hugged quite a bit. That would have to do.

When Rex Harrison repeated Henry Higgins in the 1981 My Fair Lady revival -- a full quarter-century after he dazzled us in the original -- the values were thrown off in Act Two when Eliza told him she was leaving. Suddenly she seemed particularly harsh for leaving such an old man.

Stephanie Mills revisits The Wiz from time to time, maybe feeling that if an older Diana Ross could play it, so could she. But even in that girlish white dress, Mills still looked perilously old for our little Kansas farm girl. Petite is not the same as young. Ask Linda Hunt.

Donna McKechnie returned to play Cassie in A Chorus Line a dozen years after she originated the role. That wasn't so problematic when she was telling Zach how she'd languished without work in California. But when he chose her for the chorus -- a plot point in which Michael Bennett never really believed, anyway -- that was stretching it.

I remember seeing 42nd Street on its first New York performance at the Winter Garden, and then not returning to it until seven years later, after it landed at its third theatre, the St. James. Many of the opening night cast were still with it. They gave their all, but I still felt I was in some sort of strange wax museum.

The one exception may be Carol Channing's Dolly. Even a woman in her 70's can still hope for one last fling, so this worked. And Channing brought the same energy in the '70s and '90s that she brought in the '60s.

But Lea Salonga back in Miss Saigon? She may only be 27 now, but nearly 10 years have passed since she opened the show in London. She looks nearly 10 years older, which is normal, which is natural.

But that's too many years older for the role of Kim, the 17-year-old innocent.

Included in the press kit for the show is a photocopied magazine article on Salonga called "Asian Diva." But early in Miss Saigon, Kim is referred to as "jailbait." You can't be both a diva and jailbait.

None of this brings me any pleasure to report. Many times it's been rued that when an actress gets to a certain age, she isn't offered a plethora of roles, while aging men still are. Elvis Presley was only 10 years younger than Angela Lansbury when he played her son in Blue Hawaii. When Jesse Royce Landis portrayed Cary Grant's mother in North by Northwest, he was actually older than she.

Jobs for Asian actresses are as scarce as Broadway performances of Moose Murders, which is probably why Salonga returned to the show. But if she hadn't accepted the assignment, the role might have gone to another Asian actress, a young kid who needs a break, as Salonga once did.

Still, at the curtain call, January 27th's audience at Miss Saigon stood so quickly it seemed that their seats had been hot-wired and the stage manager had just pushed a button that had released thousand of volts into them. And that's fine. I'd much rather people have a good time than agree with me.

I know, too, the appeal of finally seeing an original performer in a role. I didn't catch up with Fiddler until the show was four years old and Paul Lipson was Tevye. So I savored the chance to see Zero Mostel when he did the 1977 revival. Yes, William Goldman in The Season and Craig Zadan in "Sondheim and Co." had reported that soon into his 1962 Funny Thing run, Mostel ad-libbed and fooled around excessively, but that was a comedy romp; surely he wouldn't do the same for a serious work of art like Fiddler.

On that May, 1977 day at the Winter Garden, when at the very end of the show, as Tevye held Tzeitzel's baby for what might very well be the last time -- a heartbreaking moment -- Mostel pretended that the infant had urinated all over him. Goldman and Zadan, forgive me for doubting you.

Of course Salonga isn't doing anything like that. She's sincerely performing the role as written. But if I remember the movie in my mind, back then she seemed innocent and vulnerable when she first donned high heels and sexy gown, like a teen overdressed for her first adult party. Now she just seems to be appropriately attired for her age.

Her singing style has also changed, and she's developed a sophisticated technique more in line with cabaret engagements than maidenly naifs. If that planned revival of Flower Drum Song ever happens, she'd make a great Linda Low. Let's hope it happens fast, so that she can do something she's never done before.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com