Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's wildly successful 1989 sophomore effort,"Miss Saigon" is hitting the regional circuit, and this production under the direction of David Bennett at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre clearly demonstrates why the show, one of the most successful in Broadway history, still has the legs to carry it further into the new millenium
Although Papermill Playhouse resident scenic designer Michael Anania gives us a decidedly stripped down rendition of the physical production, sans some of the more garishly spectacular special effects, this production feels right at home amidst the 5th Ave's lavish, lovingly restored 1920's era Chinese "Imperial City" dÈcor, and Anania blends elements of the motif into his spare design, creating a delightfully unique merging of the two worlds. Bennett, likewise offers up a mÈlange of both national and local talent to create an evening of musical magic, that, while perhaps not quite measuring up to the level of sheer spectacle presented in the original Broadway run and National Tour, nevertheless well serves Alain, Boublil and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr.'s modern retelling of the classic Puccini opera, "Madame Butterfly".
It's difficult not to note the numerous similarities between "Butterfly" and "Miss Saigon", as the two share the same storyline, and most of the major characters are cut from essentially the same cloth. But, whereas the former work views the story of an American soldier falling in love with, then abandoning an innocent oriental girl with a sort of mocking condescension, the latter doesn't shy away from dealing with the darker themes and issues dredged up from our nation's still very painful experiences during the Viet Nam war, not to mention the equally troublesome legacy of French colonialism which was its inheritance. But, what distinguishes "Miss Saigon", and where it shares perhaps its greatest similarity with the venerable, if culturally myopic predecessor is in its rich, operatic score. There is very little in the way of spoken dialogue; in fact, literally only a dozen words escape musical accompaniment, and these brief recicitivas are used sparingly for highly dramatic effect. Also, unlike traditional book musicals, "Miss Saigon" isn't the kind of work that prompts audiences to trip lightly out of the theatre with memorable show tunes rolling off the tongue. But, the combination of Boblil and Schonberg's densely textured score and Maltby's evocative lyrics leave haunting impressions that linger like ghosts long after the last refrains have faded away.
With a score this demanding it's essential that the performers are up to task, and in this regard Bennett has assembled a cast of Broadway and "Miss Saigon" veterans, who mixed with a bevy of local musical theatre standouts in supporting roles show they are capable of tackling the complex score. Local Louis Hobson turns in some of his best work to-date as the conflicted U.S. GI Chris, although he still exhibits occasional difficulty with his upper register, most notably in the finale of the emotionally climactic "the confrontation". Regardless, the role allows Hobson to demonstrate his strong acting chops, and he makes the perfect counterpart to Emy Baysic as Kim, the naÔve country girl thrust into the nightmarish world of Saigon's and later Bangkok's notorious red light districts. Together the two soar on their duets, particularly the romantic Act I "Sun and Moon" and "The Last Night of the World", and Baysic lets loose a simply glorious soprano on the touching, "I Still Believe" and "I'd Give My Life For You".
No production of "Miss Saigon" could be complete without a cheeky, gleefully greedy Engineer, and this production has one in the guise of Raul Aranas' poncey, but somehow still likeable "fixer". Although exuding less of the snake-oil charm of say, Jonathan Pryce's memorable characterization, Aranas grounds his performance in a delicious avarice that, while certainly reprehensible at a certain level, is nonetheless equally understandable. He may be a two-bit hustler, with more ambition than ability, but Aranas completely convinces us of his character's ability to survive just about any challenge thrown at him, whether its pumping up his dingy club, "Dreamland" to passing GI's, extricating himself from a Vietnamese "reeducation camp", or finally securing his coveted ticket to "the American Dream", which in this rendition dispenses with the animatronic gimmicks, and substitutes instead a score of singing, dancing, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonators in a sly, ironic commentary on American materialism and affluence that curiously seems to go right over most of the heads of the 5th Avenue's typically upper-middle-class audience. In a way, it's a sort of backhanded compliment to Aranas' ability to sell this, as well as his other featured number, "If You Want To Die In Bed".
Also turning in good work in secondary roles are long-time "Saigon" gypsy Kingsley Leggs as John, Chris' GI buddy, and later advocate for the near forgotten "Bui-Doi", the offspring of American soldiers disenfranchised by the Communist government. Also noteworthy is local performer Brandon O'Neill at Thuy, Kim's promised fiancÈ, and Candice Donehoo in the featured role of Ellen, Chris' American wife.
Despite the comparatively bare-bones nature of this production, there are a few elements that simply can't be dispensed with so easily: yes, the infamous helicopter makes it's brief appearance during the "Kim's Nightmare" scene in Act II, but the effect seems almost perfunctory, given the production's adherence to minimalism up to that point. In some ways the absence of spectacle has a salutary effect, in that it places much more emphasis on the story, and the emotional lives of the characters. Without the expectation of visual eye-candy, the audience is more readily caught up in the plight of Kim, Chris and Ellen, although one can't help but feel the disturbingly abrupt ending, although not unexpected, needs somewhat more of a dÈnouement than is allowed.
Without a doubt, "Miss Saigon" is going to become a regional theatre staple, and with this production, the 5th Avenue once again finds itself in the enviable position of setting a high bar for future productions to surpass.