Friday, December 17, 2004

Miss Saigon (Playhouse Square Center)

‘MISS SAIGON’ proves the show must go on

There is a motto in the theatre that the show must go on. In the opening night performance of the road show production of ‘MISS SAIGON,’ which has a short December 14-19 run at the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square, reality confronted the myth. It seemed obvious as the first act proceeded that Jennifer Paz, who was portraying the leading female role of Kim, was losing her voice. After an extended intermission an announcement was made that in the second act the role would be played by Laurie Cadevida. Cadevida plays the role at matinee performances so this was not a case of someone unfamiliar with the part taking over, but it was a first in my many years of acting, directing and reviewing theatrical productions in which a switch took place mid-show. Yes, the show did go on!

‘MISS SAIGON’ is set in 1975 during the final days leading up to the American evacuation of Saigon. The multi-award winning play 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 demoniacally 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."

One of the problems confronting theatre organizations such as Playhouse Square is that some of the road shows touring the country are non-union groups which travel with minimal orchestras and performers who haven’t quite cut their teeth on professional stages. This means that audiences are paying to see mid-professional level shows. The shows are often peopled by recent college grads who are willing to take on the hard task of performing for a couple of days in one city and then packing up and dragging their weary bodies off to another short stopover. It’s wonderful experience for the cast, but not always such a wonderful experience for the audiences, who often think they are going to see experienced professionals.

‘MISS SAIGON’ is a case-in-point. The show is quite acceptable. In fact, in places it is very good, but it is not equal to earlier professional productions. In fact, the script has been released for local production and Beck Center staged a production this past summer. It was excellent and, in some cases, superior to the non-union show that is performing at the Allen Theatre.

The cast is quite uneven. Both of the women who played Kim were effective. Both had fine singing voices.

A pivotal character, The Engineer is supposed to be a slimy guy who will do anything to make a buck and reach his goal to become part of the American dream. Johann Michael Camat is much too young to play the role and lacked the necessary sleaze factor. His singing voice was excellent. His rendition of “The American Dream” was a show stopper.

Alan Gillespie, who portrayed Kim’s lover Chris, has a nice singing voice but has not developed the acting skills to pull off the role. His face showed a constant grimace rather than emotional texturing and there was a shallowness in his character development. D. J. Oliver, as John, who both makes arrangements for Chris to meet Kim and then reconnect with the son he fathered, lacks the charisma necessary to make”Bui-doi” the potent song that it should be. Tadeo is not menacing enough as Thuy the man to whom Kim has been promised in marriage and whom she kills when he searches her out and attempts to hurt her son.

Highlights of the show were the beautifully sung “Sun and Moon” by Paz and Gillespie, the powerful “You Will Not Touch Him” as rendered by Paz , and “Now That I’ve Seen Her” as performed by Rachel Kopf, who portrayed Chris’s American wife. The chorus was excellent and the choreography quite effective.

This production has a stripped down set which makes for some awkward staging. The famous helicopter flight is done with projections. Actually, the effect is quite good as are the pictures used during the emotionally heart-effecting song “Bui-Doi” in which pictures are shown of orphaned children born to Vietnamese mothers and U.S. GIs.

Much of the musical accompaniment was produced by a sinfonia, an electronic musical instrument which substitutes for many of the instruments used in a complete orchestra. This saves on costs but also produces less than a full orchestra sound as only ten musical instruments are actually playing in the orchestra pit.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though this production of ‘MISS SAIGON’ is quite acceptable, it is a non-union show which should be advertised as such. It is unfair to lead potential audience members to believe that they are seeing a Broadway-level production when that is not the case.