A Review

Epic Love Story Lives On

By R. J. Donovan

Not unlike the Phantom's crashing chandelier and the massive spinning barricade in “Les Miz,” the helicopter in “Miss Saigon” was the subject of “spectacle speculation” when the mega-hit first opened at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1989.

Was the show an epic love story set against the turmoil of Vietnam, or was it a tale of technical marvel that relied on gimmicks to win the audience over?

Well the answer lies in the production of “Miss Saigon” now at The Wang -- because there's no helicopter landing on stage. Instead, through clever lighting and sound effects, a computer generated projection fills in for the chopper scooping soldiers from the fall of Saigon. And the glistening “American Dream” Cadillac that used to float towards the audience on a cloud of smoke has also been replaced by a visual montage of American icons that run from John Wayne to Las Vegas. And still the love story thrives.

From the creators of “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon” was written by Alain Boubil (book, lyrics and original French lyrics), Claude-Michel Schoenberg (book and music) and Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics). The touring production is directed by Mitchell Lemsky, who served as Associate Director for the Broadway production.

At the heart of the production at The Wang is a passionate performance by Jennifer Paz, ironically, the actress who first played the role of Kim when the show premiered in Boston a decade ago. She sings with both tenderness and power as she creates her story of a virginal young woman who falls in love with an American GI, becomes pregnant (unbeknownst to him) and is left behind when the American troops pull out of Saigon. She raises the boy on her own, all the while waiting for the return of her true love -- who has returned to America and married. Kim eventually makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of her son.

Paz is impressive in all her musical numbers but is particularly memorable in the solo "I'd Give My Life For You," as well as the duets "Movie In My Mind" (with Ramona Dubarry) and "I Still Believe" (with Rachel Kopf, who plays Chris' wife).

In the role of The Engineer is Jon Jon Briones. Slick and slippery, The Engineer runs the nightclub where Kim first meets her love. He’s always got an angle, and he’s all about whatever it takes to make a buck. At the same time, the actor playing him also has to be likable enough for his role to click.

With a slick smile and a twinkle in his eye, Briones is one of the best Engineers I've seen in the role. He sings great, moves like the fluid, slithering snake he can be, and provides the machinery for the story to press on. He shines in “If You Want To Die In Bed” in Act One and hits his peak in the splashy “American Dream” in Act Two.

The weakest link in the show is Alan Gillespie who played Chris, the GI. He's vocally suited for the role, but his characterization of Chris as whimpering and overwrought strikes a wrong note. While the character should be strong but frustrated, Gillespie presents him as a quivering muddle who constantly appears on the verge of bursting into tears.

Wallace Smith does a nice job as Chris' friend John. He leads the second act opener, "Bui-Doi," with strength.

This production in non-Equity -- a fact the informational picketers make clear up and down Tremont Street in front of the theater. It has also been re-thought in several ways, some of them (the helicopter and Cadillac) obviously motivated by finances.

The overall setting is much darker and smokier than the original. And the sets are neither as detailed nor as numerous as previous productions. Still, it’s the sweeping story and lush musical score that carries you along in this “Madame Butterfly” re-telling.

If you've seen previous productions, will you notice the difference? Probably. It’s hard to forget the vivid colors and majesty of the original. And as much as the original helicopter was the topic of debate by purists, it was impressive to witness the execution of what was clearly an exciting special effect.

On the other hand, if you haven’t seen the show before, will you be missing anything. In this production, probably not. The gripping musical love story was, and still is, the thing that grabs the heart.

“Miss Saigon” is at The Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street in Boston, through September 28. For information, call 800-447-7400.

-- OnStage Boston


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