Reviewed by George Basler
Miss Saigon is a story of love and sacrifice set amidst one of the ugliest and most misbegotten wars in American history.
It’s a credit to the Endicott Performing Arts Center Repertory Company that both the sacrifice and ugliness come through clearly in a production that opened this past weekend (March 7-9) at the Endicott theater.
The show, which continues this weekend (March 14-16), is stunning in every respect from the stellar leads to strong supporting players to a fine ensemble. Lorraine Tennant’s direction is also first-rate, no small achievement in a sprawling show with a cast of more than 30 performers.
The only flaws are ones inherent in the material itself. The score, while filled with lush melodies, gets a bit repetitious toward the end with a succession of plaintive ballads. The plot is also melodramatic in the extreme.
That being said, very few shows pack the emotional punch of Miss Saigon.
The musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., tells the story of a tragic romance between a Vietnamese woman, Kim, and an American soldier, Chris, played out against the Vietnam War.
One source for the musical is obviously Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. But Schonberg reportedly also was inspired by a magazine photograph that showed a somber Vietnamese mother leaving her child at the departure gate at Tan Son Nhut Airport. The child was bound for a waiting father, an ex-GI, and hopefully a better life in the United States. Schonberg called the mother’s action “the ultimate sacrifice.”
This is pretty strong stuff, and Miss Saigon doesn’t shy away from it. In fact, the first song in Act II, “Bui Doi,” translated as “dust of the earth,” features a series of projected photographs of American-Asian children, fathered by American soldiers and left behind to a bleak future.
Equally unsettling is the theme of betrayal that runs through the musical. A centerpiece of the show is the fall of Saigon in 1975, and abandonment of the Vietnamese who worked for us. Tennant stages the scene beautifully using light and sound effects to convey the terror of the South Vietnamese left behind as the last helicopter left the embassy’s roof top.
The key character is Kim, the Vietnamese bargirl, who falls in love with an American soldier. Lauren Kovacic is absolutely stunning in the role. She sings wonderfully and conveys not only Kim’s innocence, but her steely determination and strength. In the end, she breaks your heart.
Josh Smith is also fine as Chris, her GI lover. The character could come off as bland, but Smith shows the man’s inner anguish at leaving Kim behind, and the moral dilemma he faces at the end of the show. He also sings well.
On one level, the character of Chris symbolizes America’s abandonment of its own ideals in Vietnam. We came to do good but ended up doing a lot of bad. It’s to Smith’s credit that the character is always flesh and blood and never seems to be a symbol.
The third main character is the Engineer, played by Matt Gaska. The character, who operates the bar where Kim works, is one of the most despicable characters ever put on stage. A pimp and profiteer, his sleaziness contrasts with the purity of Kim and Chris’ love affair.
Gaska is fine in the role, although he’s a bit over the top at times. His acting at the end of Act I makes the character seem drunk, not depraved. And he never quite captures the character’s Mephistophelian evil.
Still his presentation of the show-stopping number, “The American Dream,” a caustic commentary on the underside of American life, is superb. It’s one of the show’s highlights.
A pleasant surprise is the quality of the supporting cast. Anne Fabiano, as Chris’ American wife, does an excellent job with the power ballad, “Now That I’ve Seen Her” in Act II. Her character is pretty much a cipher, so Fabiano doesn’t have much to work with, but she arouses sympathy in the role.
A strong performance also is turned in by Megan Germond, as GiGi, another bargirl. Germond is deeply affecting in one of the show’s best numbers, the poignant “The Movie in My Mind,” at the start of Act I. Unfortunately the potentially interesting character disappears after that. Schonberg and Boublil should have developed her more.
Michael Farley does a solid job as John, Chris’ best friend, and leads the moving rendition of “Boi Doi” at the start of Act II.
Finally Andrew Simek is strong in the role of Thuy, a North Vietnamese soldier once betrothed to Kim. Simek brings a sense of empathy to a character who could have been a stock villain. As misguided as the character is, Simek’s portrayal makes you understand his wounded pride and feelings for Kim.
When it comes to geopolitics, Miss Saigon is certainly simplistic, but I went to the theater looking for an emotional experience, not a history lesson. And Miss Saigon delivers that emotion a big way.
IF YOU GO: Miss Saigon will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (March 14-15) and 3 p.m. Sunday (March 16) in EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theatre, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $20 ($18 for ages 65 and older). Call 785-8903, go online to endicottarts.com or visit the box office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday.