East meets west in “Miss Saigon”

Saigon129FBy Ande Jacobson

Palo Alto Players (PAP) tackles a classic story with their production of Miss Saigon, by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Richard Maltby, Jr., which is based on Giacomo Puccini’s tragedy, Madama Butterfly, about a doomed romance between an Asian woman and her American GI lover.  The modern version keeps the drama and concept on which Puccini’s opera was based but modernizes the story and brings it to Vietnam, and PAP makes a valiant effort to stay faithful to the script.  Overall, it’s a production worth seeing in spite of a few shortcomings.

Director Patrick Klein, musical director Matthew Mattei, and choreographer Jennifer Gorgulho utilize several strong leads and an eager and energetic ensemble to create a production that has a powerful impact.  Brian Palac as the Engineer is a true delight.  He has the right blend of moxie, sleaze, and heart as his character “engineers” the critical human connections.  His vocals are extremely well done, and he doesn’t miss a note.  His fluid manner is simultaneously inviting and disturbing given his character is the archetypical con man/pimp always angling for grandiose personal gains – namely passage to the USA along with financial rewards at the expense of his girls.

Katherine Dela Cruz as Kim is also very strong.  She displays the right blend of emotion, and her final scene is gripping as some sniffles were heard on opening night when she met her tragic fate.  She and Chris (Danny Gould) make a believable couple, easily embracing one another in their tender moments.  The only negative comes in a few of the vocal climaxes such as in “Sun and Moon” and “Last Night of the World” when their voices develop a rough edge as they hit the bigger crescendos.

Adrien Gleason as John is a solid performer.  He has an intensity and finesse that carry you with him on his emotional ride.  He and Gould are credible best friends through challenging times.  Their duet in “The Telephone” is touching, staged with each on a phone on opposite sides of the stage, John trying to persuade Chris to come back as the evacuation looms, Chris emphatically clinging to his new found love.

Lindsay Stark as Ellen is a solid performer as well, but the physical pairing with Gould doesn’t quite work.  Her duets with Dela Cruz, on the other hand, are riveting.  Paul Villareal as Thuy is a little weak when his character is alive not quite having enough punch in his confrontations with Kim, though his scenes as a ghost are downright frightening.

The ensemble is strong overall, and after a slight misstep by the Asst. Commissar in the introductory portion of the number, they really shine in “The Morning of the Dragon” which combines drill team choreography with an operatic vocal line reminiscent of Borodin’s Prince Igor.  While there was a slight phasing issue with some of the maneuvers on opening night, overall, this is a very impressive number led by the Dragon dancers.

There are a few vocal moments that don’t quite work, particularly in “Kim’s Nightmare” sequence as some of the GIs seem a bit wimpy, their voices not delivering any punch.  The staging of that number is interesting though, the embassy gate shifting positions around the stage contributing to the chaos the scene depicts, also showing us the action from multiple angles.

“Bui-Doi” starts with a very nice a cappella men’s ensemble section, and Gleason’s solo is beautiful and quite poignant.  Klein’s staging on this number works well, the film projection hammering home the song’s message as Gleason continues through his solo.

Mattei makes an interesting choice for the orchestral accompaniment shaving the orchestra down to a mere 4.5 players, one of whom has the bulk of the orchestra on his shoulders guiding the Sinfonia’s execution.  The Sinfonia could provide the entire orchestra digitally and is adjustable for tempo, dynamics (which overall should be a little louder), and even instrumental composition as some parts can be turned off.  Mattei takes advantage of the Sinfonia’s flexibility and adds a few acoustic players including a violinist, a single reed player covering alto saxophone, oboe, and English horn, and a single trumpet/flugelhorn player.  Mattei himself has a keyboard as well, but he rarely plays instead focusing on directing the musical action both upon and below the stage.  Keeping a live brass player in this setup is a mistake.  The other acoustic instruments blend reasonably well with the Sinfonia and can stand out when appropriate such as the solo sax lines in “The Transaction” and “Last Night of the World”.  Unfortunately, the trumpet is overpowering and misses too much of the time.

Set designer Kuo-Hao Lo has some nice concepts for rolling sets that give enough of the feel of the place to frame the scenes, sometimes just providing an outline such as the embassy gate in the nightmare sequence, and other times filling out the space.  Their easy movement allows for very smooth set shifts.  Only in “The Heat is On in Saigon” does the set seem a bit big for the stage, but that’s more a function of the staging creating an extremely crowded bar scene with sexy Bar Girls enticing the lecherous GIs while the Engineer works the room.  It’s effective and has a lot of energy.  Lo also creates a nice picture bringing the helicopter to bear at the critical moment.

There were a few sound problems opening night with some microphones popping, but overall, Jon Hayward’s sound effects are compelling.  Edward Hunter’s lighting design is wonderful, and not just for the grandiose moments.  His nuances like the rose colored lighting streaming in from the window as Chris gazes at the sleeping Kim the morning after their first night together, and the eerie effects he devised for Thuy’s ghost making him appear “other worldly” add to the depth of the presentation.

While this isn’t a “feel-good” story, it is compelling theatre that should be seen.  Its haunting images will stick with you, and PAP does an admirable job bringing this saga to life.  Because of the adult themes and language, this production is not appropriate for young children.

What:  Miss Saigon

Where:  Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto, CA

When:  Continues Thursdays through Sundays through 12 May 2013

See http://www.paplayers.org or call (650)329-0891 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photo courtesy of Palo Alto Players)

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