By PAM HARBAUGH
Big spectacle and big voices tell an epic story in Cocoa Village Playhouse’s potent and precise production of “Miss Saigon.”
With music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. (Schonberg and Boublil created “Les Miserables”), this remake of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” tells the story of love between an American soldier and a Vietnamese woman immediately before the 1975 Fall of Saigon.
In it, John brings his buddy, Chris, to a brothel run by The Engineer. Chris meets Kim, an innocent young woman driven by hardship into accepting a job there. The love they soon share is thwarted by the Viet Cong and the Americans’ hasty retreat from the war-torn country. The image to keep in mind is the famous photograph of the final helicopter on the roof of one of the buildings in the American embassy compound in Saigon. The moment was fraught with despair and hopelessness by those left behind. Indeed, that image also looms as the iconic moment for this musical — a moment which leaves directors and technical directors scratching their heads on how to make it happen.
Along with scenic/lighting designer Ian Cook, associate designer Jeremy Phelps and sound designer Gavin Little, director Anastacia Hawkins-Smith pulls off this crucial plot point with light and sound and another little trick which breaks fourth wall and sends the thrilled audience into excited applause. But you can’t depend only on smoke and mirrors to make the show succeed. It also needs stunning talent. Here, Hawkins-Smith has brought together a stage filled with splendid voices which sail easily through nearly three hours of challenging music.
Francesco Battagliese is unbridled in his performance of The Engineer, a French-Vietnamese man who can finagle his way through any challenge and end up on top. His big scene is “The American Dream,” in which he treats money as a sexually-alluring idol.
Christina Montgomery evokes emotion in her heart-filled portrayal of Kim. Blessed with a beautiful voices, Ms. Montgomery and Jason Reichman (Chris) whip up the passion and romance in “Sun and Moon” and “The Last Night of the World.”
David Morales stuns with his strong portrayal of Thuy, the Viet Cong who also loves Kim and to whom she is betrothed. His second act appearance brings chills. Wendy Bernier finds the deep irony, as Gigi, the bargirl who sits beneath a sign reading “Dreamland” while she sings “The Movie in My Mind.” And Natalie Palmer strikes the right chord as Ellen, Chris’ American wife. Ms. Palmer is especially compelling in “Now That I’ve Seen Her,” which she sings after her character meets Kim three years after the war.
But it is Johnathan Shepherd who brings down the house as John, the soldier who finds himself on a crusade to unite servicemen with the children they fathered while in Vietnam. Mr. Shepherd is a powerhouse on stage and his “Bui-Doi” is as good as it gets, anywhere.
Choreographer Pamela Larson does her best work ever in “The Morning of the Dragon,” the thrilling dance in which lines of now-communist Vietnamese march in lock step while holding up posters of the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. It is a fierce ballet, filled with dread and big spectacle (great banners by Sheryl Koby).
That dance, coupled with the Fall of Saigon complete-with-helicopter scene, are wonderful examples of theatrical spectacle. But Cocoa Village Playhouse ironically sets itself up for missing the mark with “The American Dream.” They prove they can crank out the big stuff and that’s what we want this third time to the plate. Although performed very well by the talented cast, “The American Dream” needs needs more visuals than a big glittering dollar sign and a red carpet. C’mon. Smack us in the face with it. We can take it.
Music director Daniel Klintworth and conductor William Yoh bring astounding work to this production — from voices to orchestra, it sails with professionalism. Add to that costume design by Dan Hill, Ray Asiala’s wigs and fast-paced precision by stage manager Brian Brown.
There’s no question. Cocoa Village Playhouse begins its 25th season in sure-footed manner with “Miss Saigon,” which also celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It’s big, splashy, filled with emotion, splendid spectacle, great voices and, yes, lots of contemporary adult content.
Photo of Francesco Battagliese as The Engineer by Jonathan Goforth.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Miss Saigon” runs through Oct. 12 at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. $16 to $24, handling charges may apply. Call 321-636-5050 or visit www.CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com.