What can you say about a show whose mostly eagerly awaited entrance is that of a helicopter? "Miss Saigon," Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's lush pop opera update of "Madame Butterfly," makes a Madonna concert look like a high school musical. And it's flying high -- if mechanically -- at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, courtesy of the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities.
Stephanie A. Coltrin's assured direction makes the most of Lucky Cardwell's bold set design, a barrage of Communist red and gold, seamy neon signage and chain-link militarism. The production's stage pictures are delivered with vigor and craft by an ensemble of 30, dressed in Mela Hoyt-Heydon's vivid costumes. Musical director Alby Potts makes the most of Schonberg's powerful choral numbers.
The principals are mostly "Saigon" veterans from Broadway or the show's national tours. Eric Kunze does what he can with the limited role of Chris, an American soldier who finds solace in the arms of Kim, a young Vietnamese beauty displaced by her country's war. As his doomed love, the clear-voiced Jennifer Paz gives Kim a stillness and integrity; the show is hers, and she takes it with modesty and grace. If Civic Light Opera regular Kevin Bailey is a little uncomfortable as the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese hustler, he at least has the old-fashioned instincts of a good ham. The standout is Bonifacio Deoso Jr. as Kim's cousin, who gives a performance of intensity and feeling. He seems alive, a real achievement in this juggernaut.
Civic Light Opera's excellent production delivers high-end spectacle with the company's characteristic energy and style. But the show, one of impresario producer Cameron Mackintosh's string of mega-hits ("Cats," "Les Miserables," "Phantom"), is another thing. This is musical as global bland. It's like going on a trip in which you see everything from the window of the bus, the indigenous population speaks excellent English and someone even writes your postcards for you.
In short, "Saigon" asks nothing of your imagination, buffeting audiences with its orchestrated expertise until, like Kim, we submit. There is little wit to Richard Maltby Jr. and Boublil's lyrics: the innocent Kim has "legs unparted / heart uncharted;" later, the Engineer sings of her son, "This kid is OK / He's our entree / To the U.S.A." Not exactly Johnny Mercer. Occasionally talent punctures the seamless grandeur; Harrison White, as Chris' Army buddy, gives an impassioned turn in "Bui-Doi" (Dust of Life), a plea to recognize the mixed-race children born from the Vietnam conflict. But in the end, a story about the brutal effect of ideologies on individuals muffles its sharpest critique.
"Saigon's" beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The women sitting behind me sobbed with pleasure and agreed they'd happily watch it again.
Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: May 18
Price: $50 to $60
Contact: (310) 372-4477
Running time: 3 hours