Signature Theatre certainly has had numerous successes with putting new spins on large scale musicals so it perhaps comes as no surprise – particularly for those who saw its production of Les Misérables several years back – that Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer and company have decided to do it again. This time the focal point is a slightly lesser known (but not by much) creation from the same composing team, Claude-Michel Schönberg (Music) and Alain Boublil’s (Lyrics, along with Richard Maltby Jr.), Miss Saigon.
Of course, the story of romance in the time of war is quite familiar. Yet, as the name suggests, this story takes place in a particular place at a particularly charged time in world history. Chris (Gannon O’Brien) and John (Chris Sizemore) are among the American Marines serving in Vietnam in the Spring of 1975.
Their entry into a sleazy club in Saigon, operated by the even more sleazy Engineer (Thom Sesma), sets off a new path for Chris just as he was ready to leave his Vietnam experience behind. When he meets Kim (Diana Huey) – the newest girl at the club – it isn’t exactly love at first sight, but feelings quickly change. The ever-changing political and military landscape of the tumultuous country threatens them pursuing a life together in the United States.
Even after Chris returns to the States and assumes a new life with the all-American Ellen (Erin Driscoll), he’s reminded of Kim. Kim endures great hardships in Vietnam and Thailand until she sees Chris again three years later – dealing with a jealous, menacing lover (Thuy, played by Christopher Mueller) who now holds a position of authority is just one of her problems and the Engineer is still in her life – but has never given up dreams of a happy ending.
The question is whether one is really possible, what would it entail, and whose happy ending would it be?
Although Miss Saigon has been criticized among some experts to be one of those British mega-musicals that’s low on substance and high on production values – in the original productions in London and in New York, a massive helicopter appears on stage in Act II – I’d argue that there is a real story at place, and one that has heart, at that.
Schaeffer and his design team (Adam Koch for sets, Frank Labovitz for costumes, Chris Lee for lighting, and Matt Rowe for sound) do well to capture the dark and complex environments in which the story takes place. Through largely well-executed environmental staging choices, they allow the audience to become fully immersed in the world of Vietnam. There’s even a period-appropriate plane part or two and effective lighting and sound choices give the sense of a helicopter being present without the inclusion of such a massive, distracting set piece.
Likewise, to the extent possible, Schaeffer allows the characters – the raw and real humans – to be the focus of most of the attention. A mostly strong cast purposefully and realistically highlights the gamut of emotions that the Vietnamese and Americans feel during the war and its aftermath. Despair, anguish, elation, anger, sadness, confusion? It’s pretty much all there.
This brings me to the cast. Let me mention a few of the highlights – those who combine emotional realism with strong acting and singing.
At the forefront of this group is Diana Huey. Put simply, she gives one of the best performances of Kim I’ve seen (or heard). Her strong voice – even if it has a tendency to go a bit nasal while belting – is remarkably well-suited to the diverse pop-rock score. She can sing tenderly when needed (“The Wedding”, also known as “Dju Viu Vai,” and “Paper Dragons”) and belt to the high heavens during the tensest of moments (“Thuy’s Death” and “Kim and Ellen”). However, when she combines Kim’s never-wavering hope for a better life and natural innocence mixed with real life experience to convey her inner-most desires in songs (“I’d Give My Life for You”), she really shines. A strong actress and singer, her chemistry with her castmates and understanding of Kim’s predicament is undeniable.
Also deserving mention are Thom Sesma, Chris Sizemore, Gannon O’Brien, and Christopher Mueller.
Sesma is well-experienced in playing the Engineer in other productions, but fear not, he certainly does not phone in this performance. Cunning and persistent, he brings to life a man who is not above making the best of a horrible situation for personal gain. His take on “The American Dream” is a definite highlight thanks to his stage presence and thorough understanding of the Engineer’s wants.
Sizemore and O’Brien (the latter of whom stepped into the role at the last second and has played the show since the first preview) have strong voices, which make songs like the emotionally heavy “Why God Why” and “Bui Doi” a pleasure to hear. Both are particularly believable – Sizemore in particular – as men who have seen it all and know that no choice in conflict or post-conflict situations is ever easy. Additionally, O’Brien has great chemistry with Huey so the romantic scenes never come off as forced or awkward.
Mueller has a breakout performance here after playing numerous ensemble roles in many area productions. He has one of the strongest voices in the male cast and I’m particularly elated that he got the chance to play a menacing character to show his acting range. Although not quite as believable as he might be when we’re first introduced to Thuy, he quickly gains the confidence he needs and transforms into a jealous man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Less successful is Erin Driscoll as Ellen. Acting-wise, she’s at her best when Kim shows up three years later in Bangkok in search of Chris. One can see the inner-conflict at play – balancing her love for Chris after only a short marriage with understanding Kim’s predicament. Yet, she doesn’t necessarily have the vocal range (particularly in the lower-register) to convincingly pull off “I Still Believe,” which is an important introductory song for her character. She fares better with some of the other duets in Act II and with her solo piece “Maybe” – a lyrically-more appropriate, but less melodically interesting replacement for “Now That I’ve Seen Her” – but there was still a feeling that the character’s songs weren’t quite in her vocal sweet spot.
Closes September 29, 2013
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $36 — $103
Tuesdays thru Sundays
A strong 15-piece orchestra, under the direction of Signature regular Gabriel Mangiante, is also is a crucial element to making these company numbers rise to the highest pinnacle. There was a moment or two at the performance I witnessed where the flute part stood out (and not in a good way), but overall the group energetically and skillfully played William D. Brohn’s orchestrations as a cohesive unit.
Overall Signature is deserving of many accolades for pulling together its most technically ambitious show to date without losing focus on the story. Featuring many solid performances, it may not be an entirely new take on the show, but it’s a good and fruitful one.
Miss Saigon . Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg . Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. And Alain Boublil . Adapted from the original French lyrics by Alain Boublil . Orchestrations by William David Brohn . Directed by Eric Schaeffer . Featuring Diana Huey, Jason Michael Evans, Thom Sesma, Erin Driscoll, Chris Sizemore, Christopher Mueller, Cheryl Daro, Stephen Gregory Smith, James Gardiner, Gannon O’Brien, Vincent Kempski, Nicholas Yenson, Kevin Kulp, Ryan Sellers, Katie Mariko Murray, Tamara Young and Eunice Bae. Choreographer: Karma Camp . Scenic Design: Adam Koch . Costume Design: Frank Labowitz . Lighting Design: Chris Lee . Sound Design: Matt Rowe . Wig Design: Anne Nesmith: Music Director: Gabriel Mangiante . Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jennifer Perry.
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