AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. & Alain Boublil
Directed by Patrick Klein
Presented by Palo Alto Players
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto / (650) 329-0891

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"Miss Saigon," a musical theater updating of Giacomo Puccini's opera "Madama Butterfly," moves the action from 19th century Japan to 20th century Vietnam. The names and setting differ, but the plot is similar.

Palo Alto Players has undertaken this challenging, ambitious work in a mostly successful production directed by Patrick Klein.

"Miss Saigon" starts in its namesake city in April 1975, shortly before South Vietnam's fall to the communist Viet Cong. A weary U.S. Marine, Chris (Danny Gould), meets a shy, virginal, 17-year-old Vietnamese bar girl, Kim (Katherine Dela Cruz). They fall in love during a brief affair, but Kim is left behind when U.S. personnel are hastily evacuated from the city before it's overrun by the enemy.

Three years later, Chris and his American wife, Ellen (Lindsay Stark), return to Vietnam after learning that he has fathered Kim's son. The visit, just like Pinkerton's in the opera, ends tragically.

Like the opera, most of this musical is sung. There's little spoken dialogue. Moreover, it's not always clear what's happening if one isn't familiar with this show or the opera. Hence, precise diction becomes vitally important, but this production sometimes falls short in that department. Compounding the problem is Jon Hayward's sound design, which was problematic in seats on the far right close to the front.

The standout performer is Brian Palac as the Engineer, a pimp with an uncanny ability to survive and a strong desire to get to the United States. He has the show's big production number, "The American Dream." Stark as Chris's wife is the most assured singer among the women. Dela Cruz is believable as Kim, who's steadfast in her love for Chris.

Gould tries too hard as Chris and pushes himself vocally, usually singing too loud. His best friend, John, is well portrayed by Adrien Gleason.

Jennifer Gorgulho's choreography is outstanding, especially in the militaristic ""The Morning of the Dragon" and the Engineer's "The American Dream." The set, though not nearly as spectacular as the original London production or the touring production in San Francisco, works well, as do the costumes by Shannon Maxham and lighting by Edward Hunter. Musical director Matthew Mattei conducts four instrumentalists from the keyboard.

"Miss Saigon" was created by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil (with Richard Maltby Jr.), the pair behind the earlier "Les Miserables." It became a huge hit after it premiered in London in 1989, when the Vietnam War was still fresh in the memories of most adults. Now it's history to the PAP cast and to younger people in the audience.

Still, the show and this production capture some of the human costs of that war.

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