Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Epic Musical Miss Saigon Comes to La Mirada

Jacqueline Nguyen (down center) and the ensemble of Miss Saigon.
Photos by Michael Lamont

The first image you see in La Mirada Theatre’s production of Miss Saigon is that of a young Vietnamese girl standing alone in a spotlight, eyes raised to the sky. Suddenly there’s a whirlwind of confusion, shouts and activity all around her, yet she doesn’t move, doesn’t say a word. She just stands there…and the frozen look in her eyes tells you all need to know. The moment is so simple and so effective that it immediately draws you in. 

Cut to the inside of a sleazy sex club in Saigon run by an Engineer who hawks booze, girls, and the promise of a good time to American soldiers during the Vietnam War and you’re thrust right into Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Buiblil’s epic musical, Miss Saigon. It’s 1975, on the eve of the fall of Saigon, where a chance meeting between a G.I. named Chris (Kevin Odekirk) and a 17-year old orphan, Kim (Jacqueline Nguyen/the girl in the spotlight), will set in motion a romance that will end in the ultimate sacrifice.

Jacqueline Nguyen and Kevin Odekirk
Odekirk and Nguyen breathe exquisite life into the soaring ballads of Miss Saigon’s sung-through score, which depends upon its actors to convey the full range of their emotions in song. He debuted as Marius in Les Misérables on Broadway, and she is a Vietnamese actress whose own mother escaped Vietnam for America 28 years ago as a single mother with three kids and a dream, according to her bio. His voice is thrilling and passionate spinning out across the audience in waves; hers is able to move from reverential to resolute within the span of a single duet. Together they form the breaking heart of a tragic love story and musical director John Glaudini knows how to show them off brilliantly.

Joseph Anthony Foronda is terrific as the opportunistic Engineer, always ready with a new scheme to reach the golden shores of America and his own “American Dream.” That slick bit of staging (complete with a sparkling cotton candy pink Cadillac) and his hard-driving “If You Want To Die In Bed,” are showstoppers, with Foronda strutting around the stage sporting an unapologetic ear-to-ear grin and buckets of charisma.

One of the most affecting subjects Miss Saigon deals with is that of the Bui Doi, the abandoned children of American fathers and Vietnamese mothers left behind after the war. “They are the living reminders of all the good we failed to do” admonish the lyrics of the song that carries their name. Phenomenally sung by Lawrence Cummings – really, let’s just dub him “the voice” – it is one of the most powerful songs in the show.

Dana Solimando’s choreography is vivid and gritty and the ensemble attacks it with gusto, with or without most of their clothes. An especially dramatic sequence is the street parade, “The Morning of the Dragon,” in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon’s new name) that observes the anniversary of North Vietnam’s victory over the Americans. Steven Young’s equally dramatic lighting and Mela Hoyt-Heydon’s striking costumes also lend great theatricality to the look and feel of the show.

By the way, if you've never read past the actors’ bios in the program do yourself a favor and read scenic designer Dustin J. Cardwell’s comments. With his kind of perspective on designing for the theatre, it’s no wonder that the work realized on stage is done with such care and consideration. It says a great deal about the quality of everyone involved in bringing director Brian Kite’s vision to life and what they’ve achieved with this Miss Saigon is rich and passionate, firing a direct hit to your heart.

Because everything else works so well, it’s easy to overlook the occasional awkward lyric that Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. wrote for the show in the late ‘80s when musicals like Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and Cats reigned supreme. The days of the big West End musical may be over but this thoughtfully produced Miss Saigon is still worth every lush and lusty note.


La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment's Miss Saigon runs through May 6. For tickets and information go to www.lamiradatheatre.com.

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