BWW Reviews: Street Theatre Company's MISS SAIGON IN CONCERT: Superb and Moving
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by Jeffrey Ellis
There's no life-sized helicopter landing on the stage during Street Theatre Company's concert mounting of Miss Saigon, The Engineer doesn't take the stage while humping the top of a Cadillac car, nor is "The Morning of the Dragon" the flag-waving, people's army spectacle you might have come to expect from bigger, grander productions of the musical that ran on Broadway for more than 4,000 performances and played the nation's theaters and concert halls while on tour.
But what remains in the superbly performed, if bare bones, production of the contemporary musical theater extravaganza-featuring music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and book and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr.-is the emotion, the passion and the very heart of the story that continues to resonate more than 20 years after its debut and some 35 years after the fall of the world capital that gives the story its name.
If anything, Miss Saigon is even more relevant today considering the culture of war that continues to be a part of the American experience. And, in light of the still controversial subjects of immigration and racial inequities, the story of Kim's enduring love for American soldier Chris-along with her ultimate sacrifice for her beloved son-is as heartrending as the story of Cio-Cio San and her Lieutenant Pinkerton that is told in Puccini's Madame Butterfly, the opera that serves as the inspiration for this modern retelling.
Director Cathy Street, music director Rollie Mains (who confidently conducts the seven-member orchestra in its performance of the Schonberg score), stage manager Alexis Lherisson, lighting designer Steven Steele, sound designer J.J. Street and video artist Lew Phillips have come together as a creative collective to bring this stirring work to the stage with a sense of style and purpose that is palpable from the very first notes of Schonberg's expressive score and which takes audiences all the way to the contemporary opera's startling, searing and quietly affecting finale.
As a result, the scene in which the gates of the American embassy are stormed by Vietnamese people begging for a way out of the certain hell they would be forced to endure in the aftermath of the American withdrawal is presented with precision and the sheer power of the will of the actors involved. It is as riveting, perhaps even more so, as the original was with that amazing helicopter flown in from the farthest reaches of the Broadway Theatre in 1991. STC's ensemble makes you feel those terrifying moments with the very best of dramatic conventions and their artistic intentions.
Street and Mains have assembled an astonishing array of talent on the intimate Street Theatre Company stage, casting local theater veterans with an amazing group of newcomers who together bring the story to life with total focus and thorough commitment. In fact, by stripping away the theatrical artifice associated with the stage spectacle of Miss Saigon on Broadway or on tour, the story justifiably takes center stage and the actors are showcased more effectively. Thus, the audience is drawn closer to the characters, the impact of the Vietnam conflict-which today is as paradoxical and vexing as ever-felt all the more deeply and, given the passage of time, jarringly by audiences too young to know or perhaps to perceive of the horrors that befell the people of South Vietnam when the communist North took over and the Americans fled.
Among the principals, Larissa Maestro makes her Nashville stage debut as the sweetly captivating Kim, whose wide-eyed innocence is destroyed by the harsh realities of the world of bars and depravity to which she flees after her village is burned by the Viet Cong. Maestro's plaintive soprano is achingly beautiful , particularly in "The Last Night of the World" and the chemistry created by her pairing with the exceedingly talented Michael Holder (who, once again, gives a remarkable performance on the STC stage-is there anything this man cannot do?) results in an emotional experience that you will savor long after the show is over. Maestro's scenes with six-year-old Ethan Morris as Kim's son Tam are heartbreakingly real and their final scene together is lovely, if draining.
Kristi Mason, who only two weeks ago was playing Babe in Lipscomb University Theatre's high-spirited revival of The Pajama Game, plays Chris' wife Ellen with lovely restraint, giving a superb acting performance through her singing. With a dramatic sense of purpose, the golden-throated Joshua Waldrep, whose character of John is an updating of Madame Butterfly's Sharpless, performs "Bui Doi"-a challenging anthem of hope and despair blended in perfect harmony for greatest effect-at the top of Act Two with a barely contained rage and ferocity underscored by honest emotion.
As The Engineer, Kenny Eiland gives a no-holds-barred performance, showing us the smarmy charm of his character with a wink and a nod while walking a fine line. The Engineer is a character unique in musical theater: He is, quite certainly, an anti-hero who though deplorable plays an important role in the creation of the conflict that is at the center of Miss Saigon. The wild-eyed abandon with which Eiland portrays The Engineer is off-putting and disquieting-and ideally nuanced.
Among the ensemble, Maia Cole is wonderful as the sexy and beautiful Gigi, while Danny Tran plays Kim's cousin Thuy (to whom she was promised by her father before his death) with a resolute earnestness made frightening by his single-minded devotion to the Communist regime.
As with other productions staged as part of Street Theatre Company's "In Concert" series-which have included Chess, Ragtime and Tommy-Miss Saigon runs for just one weekend, so you should make your reservations immediately.