By PAM HARBAUGH
The heartache of civilians trying to survive in a war-torn country rings loud with poignancy in Riverside’s powerful, spectacle-filled production of “Miss Saigon.”
The musical is written by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil with additional material by Richard Malty, Jr. Schoenberg and Boublil are the French team that created “Les Miserables,” and yes, some of the music in “Miss Saigon” is evocative of their seminal work.
The April 1991 Broadway opening of “Miss Saigon” brought quite the controversy in its casting of non-Asian actor Jonathan Pryce in the starring role of The Engineer, the profiteering Vietnamese man who hustles his way through capitalism and communism. The Broadway production also brought the technical theater-weary critics to claim that musical theater had finally “jumped the shark” when it “flew” a helicopter onto the stage to depict the iconic moment of the last Americans fleeing from atop a roof at the U.S. Embassy.
In fact, the Broadway production became such a flash point of controversy that it brought change. The idea of casting non-Asians into Asian roles (a form of theatrical “orientalism”) would soon be considered anathema to an art form priding itself as intelligent and forward thinking. Along with that came the push-back to embrace more “unplugged” shows that focus less on theatrical tricks and more on human themes.
But here, Riverside Theatre’s production has its cake and eats it, too. It succeeds on so many levels — from great casting to jaw-dropping spectacle that, instead of overshadowing, advances story and theme.
The story is inspired by Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” In it, an American GI falls in love with a Vietnamese woman. As in the Puccini opera, in which an American Navy Lieutenant falls for a Japanese geisha, the GI leaves the country and later marries an American woman. In the meantime, his Vietnamese love gives birth and beseeches the GI to take her son back to America.
Here, director/choreographer James Brennan clearly depicts the desperation of civilians caught up in the final throes of the Vietnam War. He unflinchingly delivers a raw, raunchy image of The Engineer’s lurid strip club, peopled by women who flash whatever they have to in order to get money so they can eat. Their hunger matches the wanton lust of the men who leer at the women, nearly salivating as if meat had been placed on a platter before them.
An innocent and shy young woman named Kim, in a heartfelt and delicate performance by EJ Zimmerman, appears at the club. There, she finds her fate — Chris, an American GI portrayed with magnificent voice and strength by Will Ray. The debauchery of the club contrasts vividly to Kim’s simple abode — a ramshackle, patchwork place — and her graceful devotion to Buddha. Their “Sun and Moon” duet is heaven.
As Thuy, a Viet Cong and Kim’s betrothed, Edmund Nalzarois is wonderful in his urgent appeals in “You Will Not Touch Him” and fearsome in “The Morning of the Dragon” where he threatens The Engineer to come around to the Ho Chi Minh’s new society.
In the confrontational duet with Kim, “I Still Believe,” Dana Costello brings love and sympathy to her character, Ellen, Chris’ American wife. And, as John, Chris’ friend, Philip Michael Baskerville is deeply moving in “Bui-Doi,” in which he sings about the fate of Vietnamese children fathered by American GIs.
But, oh my, you must buckle your seat belt for Herman Sebek because, as The Engineer, he takes you on quite the ride. Mr. Sebek performed the role in the original Broadway production and was cast by the Cameron Macintosh extravagantly successful show-biz machine to tour the world performing The Engineer. He commands the stage and all the players in his thrilling, well-honed portrayal of The Engineer. A real hustler, he succeeds in convincing the the Americans, the Viet Cong and even the audience that he is righteous in his actions. He keeps pushing and pushing until finally, in the show-stopping “The American Dream” number, we applaud his uninhibited humping of a giant, glittering, gold dollar sign amidst a platoon of sparkling, slick-haired Elvis Presleys and other icons of all that is American.
Setting the stage for The Engineer’s dazzling rise are Mr. Brennan, scenic designer Cliff Simon, lighting designer Julie H. Duro, costume designer Kurt Alger and brilliant work by sound designer Craig M. Beyrooti. This creative team pulls out every stop in its relentless delivery of repeated spectacle, each one more vivid than the last.
The spectacle blasts onto the stage in the second scene of the first act with “The Morning of the Dragon.” It is three years later after the American’s tumultuous departure. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City. A monumental portrait of the chairman hangs up center, flanked by deeply saturated, blood-red banners. The Engineer, dressed in tatters, tries to make his way against the tide of communists, all dressed in black, all wearing the same mask. Mr. Brennan’s nightmare choreography here chills and thrills, bringing you to the edge of your seat.
But then comes the iconic moment with the helicopter set so smartly as a second-act flashback, because, really, its impact cannot be topped. From the moment we see Mr. Simon’s exact recreation of that platform atop the embassy building, we know what’s coming. Ms. Duro’s chilling lighting and Mr. Beyrooti’s oh-so-effective sound design bring to stage the reality of that final helicopter, as if it were flying over the heads of the audience and out the back of the building, leaving only the utter hopelessness of those left behind.
This is spectacle well used. It raises goose bumps, brings tears and slaps you in the face with the truth.
A lot of people like to toss out the term “Broadway quality” when describing shows they see in these latitudes. Typically, one can rightly counter with “When’s the last time you’ve seen a show on Broadway?” Here, though, with Riverside Theatre’s exceptional production of “Miss Saigon,” arguably its biggest to date, you really will feel as though you’re on the Great White Way.
Photo credit: 32963/Benjamin Hager
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Miss Saigon” runs through Feb. 2 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach. $45 to $70. 772-231-6990 or www.RiversideTheatre.com.