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Signature Theatre Miss Saigon

By • Sep 10th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Miss Saigon
Signature Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA
Through October 6th
2:30 with intermission
$29-$84 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed September 1st, 2013

Shivers. Signature Theatre’s revamped production of the usually massively scaled 1991 Tony Award winning musical Miss Saigon is remarkable. It places the audience into the midst of the chaos of the long-ago Vietnam War fought by initially fresh-faced young men who lived moment to moment trying to get an adrenaline rush before going back in-country to risk their lives.

Eric Schaefer’s re-imagined mounting of Miss Saigon is one of closeness. Emotions and intimacy rule, rather than the physical rendering say of a helicopter in the physically bigger stage productions that many may remember. The set design by Adam Koch takes the audience into the humid far away even before the curtain rises. The audience is further immersed into this journey by Matt Rowe’s detailed sound designer and Chris Lee’s lighting.

This Miss Saigon begins as young soldiers seek out human connections when any moment can be their last. This Miss Saigon is about finding a safer world for yourself and your child while maintaining some morality when it seems just impossible. This Miss Saigon is about doing anything to try to reach a better place…trying to come to America.

But first some words of bias from this reviewer. This is written by someone who was a 24-year old Air Force intelligence officer in the early 1970’s, stationed in the Far East. This production, like iconic Vietnam-related movies such as “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter” or the television show “China Beach” is seen through a very personal standard. It may not be yours.

For some of a certain age this Miss Saigon may bring back those grainy images. For others, it can put you closer to a chaotic world, sung by actors with rich clear voices, with superlative choreography and a set with splendid renderings. This production is backed by a high-velocity orchestra that moved effortlessly from pulsating rock to the softly heated glow of love’s simmer.

As many know, the original lead actor was taken ill; replaced at the last moment. That adds to the marvel of what Schaeffer and his 17-member cast pulled-off. His concepts withstood the unexpected loss of the original male lead. This is an achievement. But, the male lead change may have reduced some of the nuanced human drama, and the heart-felt, emotional depictions in the on-stage love relationship that comprise the center of the show.

Ok now, a quick slimmed down synopsis of Miss Saigon in its time and place. First it is an adaptation in its own way of Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly. Music is by Claude-Michel Schonberg with lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Malthy, Jr. It is one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history.

It is now April 1975, the Vietnam War is winding down. The Fall of Saigon with the last helicopter out of the city is imminent. There is still some life to be led by the remaining U.S Marines.

The Marines go off to a usual haunt; “Dreamland” managed by the “Engineer” (duly slimy Thom Sesma), a French-Vietnamese man. One of the Marines, a reluctant visitor to the club, is Chris (a too coolly composed, well-scrubbed, Gannon O’Brien). He soon finds himself head over heels in love with a seventeen-year-old orphan named Kim (sweet, vulnerable, strong voiced Diana Huey). There are also appearances by Thuy (a bit one-dimensional Christopher Mueller) and John, a Marine who later becomes a saver of street children, (played by a sympathetic and man of “some weight,” Chris Sizemore).

The musical takes us back-and-forth through the fall of Vietnam, the separation of Kim and Chris, Chris’s life in the United States as a newly married man to Ellen (Ellen Driscoll), a re-connection with Kim a few years later and Chris’s first meeting with his son when back in South East Asia. As often in life, the ending is bittersweet.

From the first number to the last in this little dialogue, sung-through over 30 song score, the atmospherics are well constructed. Even the crackling of some metal grates becomes a musical enhancement. Whether a song is high-heat (“The Heat is On in Saigon”), soft hazy love (“Sun and Moon”), masculine bravado (“The American Dream”), unexpected sweetness (“Dju Vui Vai”), political statement (“The Morning of the Dragon”) or the confusion of an American wife (the première of a new song, “Maybe”), and the utter devotion of lovers Kim and Chris (“I Still Believe”) the audience is treated to a head-spinning range of songs, backed by a pumped-up 15-piece orchestra conducted by Gabriel Manginate.

The choreography by Karma Camp, let me say this, having visited some “clubs” while looking for my troops to make sure they made it back to base; is quite what I recall. The gyrations, the legs swung open and wide, the bottoms moving in ways not thought possible; Camp and her dancers got it right. They do it raw and rough and real. Everyone wants to feel alive, Camp understands that.

Oh, that aforementioned helicopter production number. In this Miss Saigon there is a climb up an unsteady rope ladder accompanied by the whirling whoosh of propeller blades. It is an ascent from Hell. Those left are slowly pinned together in a chained-linked fence corral ever and ever tighter, their screams drowned out and as they look up, left behind. To face life to come. Quite something to say the least.

Miss Saigon is a close-up exploration of love, war and culture’s clashing. The Vietnam War is now nearly 40 years past when the real last helicopter left Saigon. Newer conflicts await being musicalized, as they will be when the time come. In the meantime, go see Miss Saigon for many reasons; including the way it captures the essence of a time and place and its overall gutsiness.

Photo Gallery

Thom Sesma plays the French-Vietnamese club owner who refers to himself as The Engineer American GI Chris (Gannon O'Brien, left) and Vietnamese bargirl Kim (Diana Huey) find love during wartime
Thom Sesma plays the French-Vietnamese club owner who refers to himself as The Engineer
American GI Chris (Gannon O’Brien, left) and Vietnamese bargirl Kim (Diana Huey) find love during wartime
Chris's American wife Ellen (Erin Driscoll) comforts him on their long journey The residents of Ho Chi Minh City seek safety
Chris’s American wife Ellen (Erin Driscoll) comforts him on their long journey
The residents of Ho Chi Minh City seek safety
A warm welcome from the girls of Dreamland (from left: Tamara Young, Katie Mariko Murray, Cheryl Daro, Diana Huey, Eunice Bae) The cast of 'Miss Saigon' welcomes you to Bangkok
A warm welcome from the girls of Dreamland (from left: Tamara Young, Katie Mariko Murray, Cheryl Daro, Diana Huey, Eunice Bae)
The cast of ‘Miss Saigon’ welcomes you to Bangkok
American GI Chris (Gannon O'Brien, left) speaks with a Marine (James Gardiner)
American GI Chris (Gannon O’Brien, left) speaks with a Marine (James Gardiner)

Photos by Christopher Mueller

Cast

  • Kim: Diana Huey
  • Chris: Gannon O’Brien
  • Engineer: Thom Sesma
  • Ellen: Erin Driscoll
  • John: Chris Sizemore
  • Thuy: Christopher Mueller
  • Gigi: Cheryl Daro
  • Ensemble: Eunice Bae, Stephen Gregory Smith, James Gardiner, Vincent Kempski, Kevin Kulp, Matthew Hirsch, Katie Mariko Murray, Ryan Sellers, Nicholas Yenson, Tamara Young

Designers

  • Directed by Eric Schaeffer
  • Choreographer Karma Camp
  • Music Director Gabe Mangiante
  • Scenic Design Adam Koch
  • Costume Design Frank Labovitz
  • Lighting Design Chris Lee
  • Sound Design Matt Rowe
  • Wig Design Anne Nesmith
  • Production Stage Manager Kerry Epstein

Disclaimer: Signature Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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