note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
As summer slowly fades and autumn silently slips into the region, turning verdant leaves to fiery hues, it’s a perfect time to head north to Maine - not to see foliage - but Ogunquit Playhouse’s magnificent production of “Miss Saigon”. It’s rare that reviewers agree on all points, but when colleagues recommend not missing this show, you know it must be extraordinary.
And that’s precisely what this production is, in every way. Written by the creators of the multi-award winner, “Les Miserables,” Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, who collaborated with Richard Maltby Jr., “Miss Saigon” has captivated audiences globally, from the time it premiered in 1989 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London, where it enjoyed a 10-year run. It premiered on Broadway in 1991.
Ogunquit’s production is another front-runner. Michael Anania’s sets are lavish, Brent Bruin’s costume coordination stunningly realistic, and all special effects, including Jeremy Oleska’s sound and Richard Latta’s lighting design, are spectacular. Yes, the famous helicopter arrives in the second act, hovering, descending, then ascending through gunfire and explosives, as sobbing, panic-stricken people clutch and climb wired fences, attempting to get aboard.
Also stupendous are the orchestra, (aptly led by Ogunquit Music Director Ken Clifton), the star-studded cast and ensemble. Ogunquit has gone all-out, hiring top drawer performers and artists, some who performed in the original Broadway and national touring companies of “Miss Saigon”.
At times, the acting is so powerful, the audience is left gasping, sighing, teary-eyed, in this tragic, heart-rending love story of Chris, (Gregg Goodbrod) a conflicted American soldier with high principles, and Kim, (Jennifer Paz) a 17-year-old, virginal Vietnamese village girl, who fall in love but become separated during the fall of Saigon. Together, Goodbrod and Paz emanate stirring chemistry throughout the play, their voices blending melodically and dramatically. Austin Ku is equally commanding as Kim’s rejected, family-arranged suitor, Thuy, who tries desperately to recapture her from Chris. Later, as a commander in the Viet Cong, and he finds Kim living in a hovel, he is enraged when she says she had an illegitimate son with Chris. He must kill Tam, he screams, because he is a symbol of her shame and broken promise to her deceased parents. As the first act closes, the drama ratchets sky-high as Kim, clinging to her hope that Chris will return for her, kills Thuy, and must flee. She seeks out the Engineer for sanctuary.
Although the plot is inspired by Puccini’s beloved opera, “Madame Butterfly,” this production paints a vivid picture of the ravages of war in Vietnam and its hideous effect on its people, especially the children called “the dust of life” --- “half-breed” innocents who were conceived by orphaned, impoverished Vietnamese mothers and American soldiers, who wittingly or unwittingly left them behind, to fend for themselves.
In one gut-wrenching scene during the second act, a large screen flashes photos of small, large-eyed orphaned and abandoned children, a vivid reminder of the travesties and tragedies of war.
TV personality Liz Walker’s handsome son, Nik, is compelling as John, Chris’ friend and fellow soldier. John initially introduces the couple in Vietnam, but later, as an advocate for these lost children, tells Chris he had a son with Kim. Plagued with nightmares, Chris, now married to Ellen, (Amanda Rose), must decide what to do with the child, despite John’s pleas.
Five-year-old Yamilah Saravong, (who shares the role of 3-year-old Tam with Zak Burgess and Sarah Deherrera on different dates), tugs at the audience’s hearts, with large pleading eyes and cuddly innocence.
Award-winning veteran actor Raul Aranas, who appeared in the Broadway and national touring company productions, dominates throughout the play, his performance as sleazy, exploitive Engineer, spellbinding. He wheels and deals people’s bodies and souls to make a buck and illegally buy a visa --- his way out --- to America.
Director Paul Dobie, who also performed in the original Broadway production, frighteningly depicts the fall of Saigon and the creation of Ho Chi Minh City in its place, amid the rise of the brutal Viet Cong. Dressed in army uniforms or black insurgents’ garb, the ensemble marches to Robert Tatad’s militaristic choreography. A celebratory red dragon races through the stage, as the tone changes from bustling city streets to the march of downtrodden immigrants, forced to leave their homes, as soldiers’ prod and beat them with rifle butts.
“Miss Saigon” is a stirring season closer for Ogunquit Playhouse that audiences won’t forget.
BOX INFO: A new production of two-act musical, music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, in collaboration with Richard Maltby Jr., appearing at the Ogunquit Playhouse, Route 1 (10 Main St.), Ogunquit, through Oct. 23. Performances are Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3:30 and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; also, Wednesday, Thursday, 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $50.50-$76.50. Visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org, call the Box Office at 207-646-5511 or Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787.