Sunday, September 8, 2013

Miss Saigon at Signature Theatre Virginia

Let's get the big question out of the way. How is the Fall of Saigon without a full-sized helicopter landing on the stage? Answer: awesome.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer is becoming quite the specialist in taking the large musicals of the 1980's and 1990's and reinterpreting them in the intimate space of the Max Theatre. Here he tackles one of the most challenging shows, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil's Miss Saigon. From its beginnings this sung-through musical which takes the premise of Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly and sets in in the desperate final days of the Vietnam War has not been without its controversies.  The original London production was faulted for casting Jonathan Pryce in the lead role of the French and Vietnamese Engineer and having him wear eye makeup that was offensive. Currently in Minnesota there are protests and heated discussions over the depiction of the Asian women in the show as submissive and sexualized objects.
While there may be moments in the script that justify the criticism audiences should make an effort to see Signature Theatre's production as at the heart of this show is a young woman's performance that shows that the leading lady is not just a love-struck, passive Asian stereotype. She's a survivor of war and a woman who fights to protect her son.

As in Madame Butterfly this is the story of a love affair between a young Asian woman and an American who leaves her behind. It is April 1975 on the eve of the end of the Vietnam War. Chris, a Marine nearing the end of his second tour of duty is weary of war. Goaded into going to the Dreamland Bar by his friend John, he meets Kim.  Kim who has fled the destruction of her village has no choice but to become the newest prostitute for the club owner, the Engineer. John buys Kim for Chris for the night and the two fall in love. They decide to spend two weeks together, Kim considering it a real marriage. Three years later, Chris has gone home to America and married Ellen, suffering nightmares about the fall of Saigon. The Engineer has spent three year in reeducation camps. Kim is surviving on the streets of the renamed Ho Chi Minh City guarding a secret. Kim commits murder to protect that secret, that she has a half American son, Tam. The Engineer always scheming to find his way to America uses Kim and her son as his ticket out of Vietnam.  It all comes to a head in Thailand and no one completely gets their dream.

The strength of the Miss Saigon script is in its descriptions of the brutality of war. Stripping the spectacle away allows the lyrics to have emotional resonance. This is enhanced by the environmental set and sound design. As you enter the Max Theatre you immediately see the trappings of the military. As you scurry to your seat take the time to stop and look at the antechamber display. The dismantled airplane and the video screen showing rice paddies and villages being bombed help to put the play into context.  Entering the theater proper you will see tattered parachutes and hear the sounds of planes and helicopters flying overhead. It is brilliant design work by scenic designer Adam Koch and sound designer Matt Rowe.  Their work is complemented by the spot on lighting design by Chris Lee and the understated costume designs of Frank Labovitz.  The entire production palette eschews glitz and spectacle for a more realistic depiction of a war torn country. The 15-piece orchestra under the expert direction of Gabriel Mangiante does Claude-Michel Schonberg's score justice without overpowering either the small performance space or the singers. Choreographer Karma Camp has very little actual dancing to choreograph but she provides inspired choreography to illustrate the change of the regimes in The Morning of the Dragon.

Eric Schaffer has cast a wonderful ensemble of actors to bring this tale to life. No matter the size of the role each performance is well-thought out even if some of the characters suffer from a lack of real character development. This is the case for the part of Ellen, the American wife who discovers the source of her husband Chris' nightmares creating a nightmare reality for herself. Erin Driscoll does what she can with the role and with the new song written for Ellen, Maybe, a less harsh version of  Ellen's original song Now That I've Seen Her covers the same dilemma as the original song, that of a wife learning the hard way about her husband's war-time romance.

Chris Sizemore handles the awkward duality of John, the best friend who buys him a girl in a bar to cheer him up and then makes a 180 to become the advocate for the half Vietnamese half American Bui Doi children. Christopher Mueller has the intensity of a fanatic as Thuy the villager turned Viet Cong loyalist. Cheryl Daro sings her solo in The Movie in My Mind with pathos really showing that the prostitutes of Miss Saigon are more than just objects of Marine lust.

Just prior to the opening of the production the original actor cast as Chris, James Michael Evans suffered a vocal injury that forced him to leave the show. His understudy, Gannon O'Brien took over the role with little rehearsal. Mr. O'Brien has a strong voice and he does a good job with the weariness of Chris of war and Vietnam itself. He still needs to find the deep passion for Kim that leads Chris to commit the mistakes his character makes.

Thom Sesma as The Engineer is the audience's gateway into the seedy world of Saigon's nightlife. The character is a train wreck, you want to be repulsed by his opportunism yet you can't help being somewhat charmed by his reptilian way of clawing his way to success. When he sings The American Dream you smile and cheer him on, even though you know his world is about to crash around him for the upteenth time.

The heart and soul of Miss Saigon is Diana Huey's Kim. Diana Huey is outstanding. Her Kim is no meek and mild lovestruck girl. Listen to the bite of her words as she strips the romance from Chris' eyes describing the destruction of her village and the graphic deaths of her parents. She is a woman who finds a way to survive living for her son and always holding on to her dream that one day Chris will return and grant her little family a happily ever after. Her decision as to how to ensure her son's future causes a lot of criticism, but Ms. Huey shows in her performance that Kim genuinely does what she does out of a belief that it is the only way to ensure her son's happiness.

Miss Saigon is being performed in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia and has been extended until October 6, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit

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