By Jordan Wright (Photo/Chris Mueller)
With the turmoil of the Vietnam War as a dramatic backdrop, “Miss Saigon” presents a poignant tale of doomed love amid the horrors of warfare. And Signature Theatre deftly conveys the tragedy of the time in its brilliant rendition of the classic.
“Miss Saigon” — with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil — is a well-known reinterpretation of Puccini’s famous opera “Madame Butterfly” and one of the longest running shows ever to hit the American stage. That’s due, in no small part, to the thousands of Amerasian children called “Bui-Doi” that continue to be part of the war’s greater tragedy.
It’s Saigon in the spring of 1975 and near the close of the great, undeclared war when Chris, a young Marine, meets Kim, an innocent country girl forced into a life of prostitution. In a strip club named Dreamland, Chris’ buddy, John, buys her attentions. He gives her to the forlorn Chris, who’s searching for meaning in a world gone mad.
The club’s owner, a crafty con man they call “The Engineer,” senses the men’s interest and ups the price. “Men pay the moon to get fresh meat,” he snickers. Thom Sesma plays the sleazy Svengali to the hilt, delivering a memorable in-your-face performance with equal parts charm and smarm.
“The Heat is On in Saigon” is a number awhirl in strippers, beefy Marines and lounge hustlers. But the tune is especially notable for the introduction of Gigi (Cheryl Daro) as the sexy, pole-dancing queen of the strippers, who is crowned Miss Saigon.
But when Gigi, Kim and the bar girls commiserate with each other in “The Movie in My Mind,” we come face-to-face with their despair.
Chris and Kim find love amid the ruins on a fateful night and pledge to spend their lives together. Gannon O’Brien (who took over the role of Chris on press night) showed engaging sensitivity and starry-eyed innocence against the fierce pathos of Kim as played by Diana Huey.
Huey is an outstanding actress and singer whose compelling portrayal of a young woman fighting for her dignity and that of the couple’s love child in a country ravaged by war and uncertainty is magnificent. Her delivery of “Sun and Moon” to their son, Tam, is a masterful display of character immersion.
Theatergoers will be wowed by this brilliantly crafted production. Signature Theatre’s award-winning director Eric Schaeffer has assembled a cast and crew in spectacular sync. Kudos to sound designer Matt Rowe for the rhythmically clanking and stomping devil-masked dancers and thundering helicopter rotors used in the iconic scene of the last chopper out of Vietnam.
Lighting designer Chris Lee also deserves praise for the blood red expression of Communist rule, neon-lit B-girls cavorting erotically and a hauntingly evil nightmare sequence featuring the commissar’s ghost. Special effects run the gamut from wind to smoke and create an atmospheric ambiance that envelops the audience in a sensory whirlwind.
And with 34 spectacular musical numbers to orchestrate, music director Gabriel Mangiante accomplishes a herculean task in style, using classical and Asian instrumentation.
In this iconic show with plenty of memorable acting to rave over, Huey, Sesma, Christopher Mueller as Thuy and Chris Sizemore as John give the performances of their lives.
“Miss Saigon” runs through September 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. For tickets and information, call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.