note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Beverly Creasey
Bringing MISS SAIGON to the States was not easy for British mega-producer, Cameron Macintosh. Actors Equity objected vociferously to the Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of the pimp, when so many Asian-American actors were finding opportunities damn hard to come by. American playwright David Henry Hwang even wrote a play, FACE VALUE, about the controversy. Pryce prevailed over the union’s concerns for diversity when Macintosh threatened to pull the tour and the rest, as they say, is strange theatrical history.
Talk about wardrobe malfunctions! Each time I’ve seen a national tour of the show, the smoke machine has belched so much black dust and smoke that I’ve never seen the famous multi-million dollar helicopter. And MISS SAIGON groupies will tell you, you gotta have that helicopter. The Turtle Lane production gets it just right: the energy, the singing, the impact—and yes, the helicopter. Technical wizard Jeff Gardiner simulates the copter so elegantly, you’ll swear you saw it take off and hover.
Director Michelle Aguillon pulls off some nifty magic herself. The cast is first rate, with a slip of a girl, named Tina Mateo, perfection as the innocent heroine of the tragedy….and TLP veteran, Peter Adams, on fire as the “Engineer.” The acid test for that role is the magnificent “American Dream” anthem: Adams doesn’t need a Cadillac to drive it home. He does fine on his own power.
Here’s the great news. Without all the bells and whistles (and smoke) of the Broadway production, you get to concentrate on the story! Basically it follows the MADAME BUTTERFLY plot, with a lot more for the part of the wife, and some bitter political medicine thrown in (about the unwanted children left behind by the G.I.s when the U.S. withdrew its troops).
Michael Parsons gives the hero’s role a sweetness you never get from the opera and Jaime Cepero heats up the “sidekick” part in a way Puccini never thought of. Creators Boublil and Schonberg (of Les MIZ fame) score with the big, sardonic production numbers (although they sound a heck of a lot like EVITA) but they can’t match the opera for the wrenching climax. (Can you tell I’m a MADAME BUTTERFLY fanatic? I’ll try to stop my comparisons but its hard when the composer matches aria for aria in a few places, and you can’t help thinking the opera aria is better.)
Justin Budinoff gives a chilling performance as the intended whom Butterfly/Kim rejects in favor of her American soldier. Speaking of chills, Donald Gregorio and company literally fly across the stage in Patricia Strauss’ breathtaking, electric, Judo inspired choreography.
Heather Hannon gives a lovely performance as the understanding wife and everyone, under Wayne Ward’s taut music direction, gets the difficult harmonies down. Kudos to the ensemble, especially Elaine Chow, as the principal whore and Pia Mina, Shiki Funakoshi and Michelle Estrada as the rest of the Engineer’s “girls.”
If you already love MISS SAIGON, you will be pleased to see how well it works on a small stage. If you’ve never seen the musical, now is the time. Alchemist Aguillon somehow gets the distractions out of the way so that the story can shine through. Heck, the whole production shines---from Richard Itczak’s clever pseudo-kimono-whore finery to the scary Red Guard uniforms----to Alex Savitsky’s searing sound design---to Gardiner’s hazy whorehouse lights (and ingenious, easily changed) sets. The “Heat” really is on in Turtle Lane’s SAIGON.