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Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Traveling Spotlight Productions Miss Saigon

By • Jul 10th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Miss Saigon
Traveling Spotlight Productions
James Lee Community Center Theater, Falls Church, VA
Through July 15th
2:45 with one intermission
$20
Reviewed July 7th, 2012

Turning opera plots into pop musicals became a trend in the 1990s an early 2000s, leading to shows like Rent (from La Boheme) and Aida (from Aida). Miss Saigon was a pioneer of this trend, recycling the plot of Madame Butterfly in Vietnam War-era Saigon and Bangkok. Truth to tell, the plot and characters of Madame Butterfly were never its strong point; its weaknesses in those areas are redeemed by Puccini’s gorgeous music. Marrying updates of the weaker points of Butterfly to Claude-Miclelle Schoenberg’s mediocre music and Alain Boublil’s and Richard Maltby’s labored and clunky lyrics, Miss Saigon is a show that can succeed only on the basis of transcendent performances and spectacular staging.

Traveling Spotlight Productions’ presentation of the show offers neither of these ingredients. The best performance belongs to Kim Frias in the leading role of Kim, a young Vietnamese girl who falls instantly in love with Chris (Michael Perez), a Marine about to leave Vietnam as the South Vietnamese regime collapses in 1975. Frias has the right look for the role, plays her character’s emotions vividly, and sings in a voice that is lovely in her lower register and serviceable in the higher passages. Her quieter vocal moments were among her best.

Chris is less a cad than Lt. Pinkerton, his Butterfly counterpart, and Perez performs adequately in a thinly written acting role. There are times when he appears not to know what to do with his hands when singing. His duet with Kim, “Last Night of the World,” the one memorable song in the score, is well-sung, though its presentation was marred by awkward blocking. As Chris’s stateside wife, Ellen, Rita Gigliotti is vocally strong, soldiering through “Now That I’ve Seen Her,” an object lesson in why writers should allow actors to show what they are feeling rather than forcing them to describe their feelings literally. Her second act scene with Kim is one of the production’s stronger dramatic moments.

Christopher Furry, a talented tenor and comic actor, would do a fine job in a number of roles I can think of, such as Thenardier in Les Miserables, Fagin in Oliver, or Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. (Furry resembles a younger version of Robert Aubry Davis, who played the latter role in Signature Theater’s production last year). The Engineer, however, is supposed to be a mixed-race French/Vietnamese character who is as sinister as he is comic. Furry gets the comic aspect of the character. The sinister eludes him, and the Eurasian is nowhere to be found. Employing strongest male voice in the production, Furry powers through “American Dream,” though without fully conveying the desperation of The Engineer’s distorted longing for the United States.

William Moore as John and J.I. Canizares as Thuy exhibited marked pitch problems, made more noticeable by oversinging. Moore’s “Bui Doi,” a potentially powerful number that opens the second act, was particularly painful. Canizares, who appears to have considerable raw stage presence, paced awkwardly and abruptly around the stage in most of his scenes.

The large ensemble was also out of tune in several of their numbers. Squeezed onto the fairly small stage of the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church, their movement was often bunched up, and the choreography (especially in a number featuring marching Viet Cong) did little to help them. The costuming likewise did no favors for the ensemble. Many of the ensemble costumes, especially in the brothel scenes and “American Dream,” were far from flattering, and the notion that 1978 Vietnamese Army troops would be dressed in stereotypical early 1960s VC “black pajamas” is risible.

Set elements included an underused upstage platform, a chain link fence that made sense only in the embassy evacuation scene, a scrim (used effectively for a video projection of a helicopter in that scene), and boxes labeled “U.S. Marines” that for some reason remained in place during scenes not involving the presence of American troops. It may be that recent power outages limited the group’s ability to hold technical rehearsals. If so, this could account for the chronic difficulty the follow spot had in locating actors. The design and execution of the lighting was generally weak, featuring specials that all too frequently left actors’ faces in shadow and two large instruments that sporadically shone directly into the audiences’ eyes.

It isn’t often that I have occasion to comment on the program for a production, but the Miss Saigon program contains overlong bios of many of the lead actors and directors, to the exclusion of bios for the ensemble members. Two ensemble members had noticeable speaking roles in the second act (as a military officer working in the embassy evacuation and as The Engineer’s night club boss in Bangkok) without any program credit. When people put in the time and effort needed to stage a community theater production, their participation deserves at least that much recognition.

Cast

  • Gigi: Kyna Hollis
  • Kim: Kim Frias
  • The Engineer: Christopher Furry
  • Chris: Michael Perez
  • John: William Moore
  • Thuy: J.I. Canizares
  • Ellen: Rita Gigliotti
  • Tam: Joshua Nakhavanit
  • Ensemble: Joseph Benitez, Aisha Casey, Jose Cortez, Michael Golder, Courntney Jannelle, Cory Johnson, Michael Kruczkowski, Catherine La Valley, Bianca Nacu, Eric O’Brien, Levi Prudhomme, Sophia Razavi, Jenny Silva, Nora Zanger

Production Staff

  • Director: Derek Critzer
  • Musical Director: Russell Penney
  • Choreographer: Megan Lewis
  • Stage Manager: Leslie Barnett
  • House Manager: Margie Wheedleton
  • Box Office: Dawn LeKang
  • Sound Design: Dave She
  • Costume Design: Sophia Razavi & Kyna Hollis
  • Head Shot Photographer: Eric O’Brien
  • Crew: Brandy Harrison, Sarah Herring, Iris Chan
  • Set Design: Derek Critzer, David and Sheila Jennelle

Orchestra

  • Violin 1: Natasha Uy
  • Violin 2: Sarah Costales
  • Cello: Judy Pyun
  • Sax/Clarinet/Flute: Brian Falkowski
  • Keyboard 1: Shannon Bailey
  • Keyboard 2: Noriko Ogizawa
  • Keyboard 3: Jessica Lin
  • Percussion: Harvey Droke

Disclaimer: Traveling Spotlight Productions provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. TSP also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio web site, which did not influence this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

2 Responses »

  1. Bob,
    I’m not going to comment on your review as I have not yet seen the show, but I would like to point out that sometimes, cast members don’t get their bios to the producer in time to go to print. Usually, cast is hounded from the beginning to get their bios in and they then wait until the last minute or try to push back the deadline. Because it is a new company and they probably have little budget, you don’t know who took on the projcet of putting programs together. They could just be someone in the cast putting it together on their lunch break at work. Actors have egos, and if they had wanted their bios in the program, they should have gotten them in on time.

  2. It is true enough that an occasional actor fails to get a bio to the person putting the program together in time to have it included. But the entire ensemble? It stretches credulity to suppose that everyone in the ensemble was tardy or unmotivated. It is far more reasonable to believe that someone made a decision that it was preferable to use available program space to carry unusually lengthy bios of principals and directors (close to 3/4 of a page in one case) than to include any bios of ensemble members. (Many groups deliberately place a word limit on bios to avoid such a problem). In my opinion, such a decision is ill-advised and slights the contributions that ensemble members make to a production.