Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Miss Saigon (Beck Center)

'Miss Saigon" triumphs at Beck Center

In the last couple of years The Beck Center has been establishing itself as a major production house in the Cleveland area. This march continues as the theatre has undertaken to stage the very difficult ‘MISS SAIGON’ as its summer production. It is a difficult show to stage because it requires superb singing voices, a charismatic connection between the lead performers, complicated set changes, and the need for a great number of male actors. The Beck production succeeds on most of these levels.

Set in 1975 during the final days leading up to the American evacuation of Saigon, the multi-award winning show is from the hands of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg who also wrote ‘LES MISÉRABLES.’‘

It is the story of two young lovers torn apart by the fortunes of destiny and held together by passion and the fate of a small child. As one of the authors said, “We have an epic tale still to tell, but we also hope that when we focus on the passionate longing of a woman for her lover, and her unconquerable love for her son; when the Saigon pimp hurls himself demonically into action; when we are with real people: spurned lover, helpless children, the ones who matter - then the surroundings are put into perspective.”

The score contains "The Heat is On in Saigon," "The Movie in My Mind," "Why God Why?," "Sun and Moon," "The Last Night of the World,""I Still Believe," "Bui-Doi," and "The American Dream."

The Beck production, under the able direction of Scott Spence is impressive. The show moves quickly, builds in all the right emotional levels, and leaves the audience fulfilled.

The most important elements in the production are the astoundingly good singing voices of the cast. Everyone from the leads to the male chorus is impressive. Especially talented are Robin Lee Gallo as Kim, the Vietnam girl who falls in love with Chris, an American GI. She is matched in her vocal abilities by Connor O’Brien, whose singing of “Why God, Why?” was among the show’s highlights. Gallo and O’Brien are totally believable and convey an interpersonal charisma that is captivating. Their renditions of “Sun & Moon” and “Last Night of the World” were wonderful.

Also vocally strong are Ian Atwood, as Chris’s friend John and Maggie Stahl-Wirfel as Chris’s wife Ellen and Paul Floriano who is quiet good as the sleezy Engineer.

Choreographer Martin Cespedes does his usual excellent job and musical director Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra not only played well, but backed up the singers rather than drowning them out.

There are a few problems with the show. Don McBride’s sets didn’t work well. He usually has a clear concept. This time the set was a series of disjointed platforms the vital helicopter effect was missing. No, we don’t have to actually see the machine hovering above the stage but we must hear it, we must know of its presence. The few flashing lights didn’t work. As one of the authors states, “The helicopter, which plucks Chris away from Kim as it pulls the last Americans from Vietnam, stands as a symbol for all those irresistible forces that rend nations apart and split one individual from another. Our musical asks you to consider the countless small tragedies which have been imposed on millions of ordinary people by governments whom we like to think we control, but who seem locked into a constant spiral of hostility. The story ends tragically, but I hope what will endure after the curtain falls are the things that matter: love, honesty, determination, self-confrontation, courage, energy, life.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of some minor flaws, The Beck production of ‘MISS SAIGON’ is powerful staging with a strong emotional effect. This is not light, escapist theatre. It is a meaningful and important story that is well told, well, sung and well acted. It deserved the standing ovation it received.