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THEATER REVIEW : Love Prevails in ‘Saigon’ : The Emotional Honesty of the Production’s Two Stars Is a Heart-Grabber, Despite Some Flaws in Musical Staging

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

First things first: The helicopter is really not all that impressive. Still, a first-rate production of the long-awaited “Miss Saigon” reopened the renovated Ahmanson Theatre Wednesday night. When the chopper touches down in the second act, it wrenches apart two desperate young people who are feverishly searching for each other--the setting for an irresistibly tragic love story that makes for much good, heartbreaking theater.

Now, the bad news: Despite an excellent company--in several roles superior to the original--"Miss Saigon” remains a shaky vehicle, too often stuck in pockets of static staging and declaiming lyrics.

“Les Miserables” creators Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boubil smartly refashioned Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” into this story of an American G.I. who falls in love with a Vietnamese bar girl, narrowly rescuing her from the lifetime of prostitution she is about to begin. Much like “Les Miz,” the score combines a pleasing if facile pop emotionality with big-hearted show ballads, in this case made arresting by orchestrator William Brohn’s flecks of Asian flute, bells and percussion.

Unlike Puccini’s Lt. Pinkerton, Chris (Peter Lockyer), the G.I., falls utterly in love with Kim (Jennifer C. Paz). And in the chaos of the 1975 evacuation of American troops from Saigon, Kim loses her love because of cruel fate, not callous abandonment. Consequently, in her long wait for her G.I.'s return, the heroine is transformed from a nobly suffering but delusional creature of a somewhat mystifying culture to a wholly identifiable tower of strength and fidelity--a victim, but not too much of one.

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The quality that saves Kim from disaster until the very end is her trusting innocence, which Chris can see through the vulgar neon light of the bar. It is there that the G.I.s gleefully participate in a pointed degradation of American culture, a beauty contest of prostitutes engineered by a slimy, insistent Eurasian pimp, known as the Engineer (Kevin Gray).

Childlike in her white sheath, Paz radiates innocence. Throughout much of the evening she stands still and sings her heart out, letting fresh and honest emotion wash over her open face. She beautifully delivers the show’s two best ballads--a duet with her lover to the wail of a saxophone (“The Last Night of the World”) and a prayerful vigil as she waits for his return (“I Still Believe”). The stillness, simplicity and grace of her performance form the heart of the show, a perfect jewel in a garish setting.

Paz is vocally well-matched with her G.I.--Lockyer also gives a refreshing and vivid performance. The honesty of the lovers is especially important in overcoming some of the clumsier lyrics assigned to them. Kim introduces herself with: “I have a heart like the sea/A million dreams are in me.” For his part, Chris notes: “She is no whore/You saw her too/She’s really more/Like the April moon.”

A major operator, a la Thenardier (from “Les Miz”) or Dickens’ Fagin, the Engineer is a symbol of the grime that manages to stay afloat near the top, artfully dodging the militaristic fever of Vietnam reunification. Vocally, Gray’s performance is suspiciously similar to Jonathan Pryce’s, the British actor who originated the role both in London and New York. Gray doesn’t inhabit the role the way Price did; he lets the slinking, sneering and eyeball rolling define the role for him.

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His best moment, not surprisingly, is in Bob Avian’s musical staging of “The American Dream,” a show-stopping song and dance gone sour and weird, performed by a phalanx of chorus girls in Jean Harlow hair and boys in rhinestone bell-bottoms. The number culminates with the Engineer humping a white Cadillac being driven by his own peculiar god, a ferocious capitalist escorted by a Miss America wearing a Statue of Liberty crown. This kind of brash theatricality, though, is sorely missed throughout most of the evening. When left without a helicopter, car or chorus on stage, the audience is often confronted with the frequent and stultifying image of two actors facing each other and loudly singing whatever extreme emotion they’re feeling at the moment.

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Nicholas Hytner, who directed the London (1989) and New York (1991) productions, as well as this touring show, went on to direct with more fluidity and imagination stage versions of both “Carousel” and “The Madness of George III” (he also directed the film version “The Madness of King George”). But in “Miss Saigon” he seems stymied, or satisfied with half-thought-out musical staging. In one ballad Chris sings to his beloved in bed, then rushes out into the street for no apparent reason to be besieged by desperate Vietnamese, then rushes back into his hut to finish the song.

Act two opens with a song, “Bui-Doi,” an impassioned plea for the adoption of Asian American children left behind in Vietnam. Sung strongly at a lectern by Chris’ friend John (Keith Byron Kirk), the song is overshadowed by the presence of a huge screen and a filmed commercial displaying the faces of the young children, very similar to a late-night infomercial. You keep expecting Sally Struthers to pop in at any moment.

Well-intentioned (although the young children in the film are by now in their 20s and not really available for adoption), the number is aesthetically egregious, typifying all that goes wrong when “Miss Saigon” so un-artfully wears its heart on its sleeve.

As Chris’ wife, Ellen, Tami Tappan gets the most out of this thankless role, illuminating the impossibility of a situation where good-intentioned people have absolutely no good avenue for escape. Allen D. Hong wrestles less successfully with the show’s other thankless role, Kim’s jealous cousin Thuy, who much less sympathetically represents the postwar problems of his culture.

For the record, the helicopter is big, its entrance proceeded by two eyes of light and a thunderous noise. It hovers like an enormous bug and then exits. The staging’s simpler notes are more effective, as when set designer John Napier’s rice-paper shades roll slowly up like curtains.

In “Miss Saigon” the huge story of the American abandonment of Vietnam boils down to the small story of a G.I. forced to leave the woman he loves. As a metaphor, the musical lets us off the hook by virtue of Chris’ honor and good intentions. As a love story, “Miss Saigon” hooks us in entirely, thanks to the emotional honesty of its two young stars.

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* “Miss Saigon,” the Ahmanson Theatre, the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 14. $45-$65. (213) 365-3500. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Kevin Gray: The Engineer

Jennifer C. Paz: Kim

Melanie Mariko Tojio: Kim (Sat. matinee, Sun. evening)

Peter Lockyer: Chris

Keith Byron Kirk: John

Tami Tappan: Ellen

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Mark W. Dongon: Tam

Lindsay Ann Regala: Tam (Tues., Thurs. and Sat., Sun matinees)

Allen Hong: Thuy

Company: Moon Hi Hanson, Marie Gulmatico, Jade K. Stice, Sandy Shimoda Nagel, Missy Aguilar, Melinda Chua, Bridget Bernell Johnston, Jenni Padua, Stephanie Park, Randy Bettis, Kevin Chinn, Leo Daignault, John-Michael Flate, Steve Geary, General McArthur Hambrick, David Jennings, Pat McRoberts, Charles Munn, Jeff Pierce, Michael Raimondi, J.P. Stewart, Larry Sullivan Jr., Dexter Echiverri, Donny Honda, Ray Rochelle, Miguel Braganza II, Ariel Felix, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Johnny Fernandez, Paul Martinez, Paul Nakauchi, Donna Pompei.

A Cameron Macintosh production. By Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg. Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boubil. Musical director Kevin Stites. Costumes by Andreane Neofitou and Suzy Benzinger. Sound by Andrew Bruce. Production designed by John Napier. Lighting by David Hersey. Musical staging by Bob Avian. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.


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