Daniel Deshazo and Alexis Bruza play star-crossed lovers in 'Miss Saigon' at Rivertown Repertory Theatre.
Of the giant, spectacle-driven British pop operas that invaded Broadway beginning in the mid 1980s, "Miss Saigon" may be the most adaptable to presentation by community theaters. For even without the space, technical prowess or budget of a Cameron Mackintosh production, the smallest company can still find the show's heart -- the heart itself.
Kenner's Rivertown Repertory Theatre unveiled that intimate connection as it opened its 21st season last week with the local community theater premiere of the musical.
With its helicopter landing onstage, "Miss Saigon" earned its spectacle cred, placing it among "Phantom's" crashing chandelier and the rolling barricades of "Les Miz." Most of the scenes in "Miss Saigon," however, are played with just two or three characters exposing their emotions.
Rivertown does offer a helicopter landing, staged on a smaller scale than one might have hoped.
The retread love-in-time-of-war story, quite loosely based on Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," is set in Saigon in the weeks before the American withdrawal from Vietnam.
The framing of the story is the show's best aspect, but also its biggest flaw. Needlessly sung-through, as all of these pop operas have been, the score is a dull, one-note mess. Claude-Michel Schoenberg's music, far from attaining the heights of a Rodgers and Hammerstein, is bargain-basement Andrew Lloyd Webber (which is already cut-rate Puccini). And Mother Goose has a better sense of meter and rhyme than the dimwitted lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr.
That said, the Rivertown performances, under the direction of Roland "Butch" Caire, are solid, often outshining the material.
In the lead roles of Chris and Kim, the American soldier and the Vietnamese bar girl he falls for, Daniel deShazo and Alexis Bruza share a genuine chemistry. DeShazo has a strong and lyrical tenor that soars in such numbers as "Why God, Why?" Bruza is touching and affective as Kim; most of her music, however, is too sappy to showcase her fine voice.
The most triumphant part of this little "Miss" is the outsized, larger-than-life portrayal of the Engineer by Vatican Lokey. Lokey relishes and commands each moment he is on stage as the scheming pimp of the Saigon brothel. Rather than card-board villain, he makes the character a survivor, whether in the land of Uncle Ho or Uncle Sam. While hardly admirable, in the end Lokey has the audience rooting for the Engineer -- think of Fagin in "Oliver!" or the twisted Emcee of "Cabaret" -- hoping that he will indeed realize his twisted vision of the American Dream.
A strong supporting performance also is offered by Joy Chun Duke as Gigi, one of the brothel girls. She may well have the best voice on stage. As John, Chris' colleague, John North is a commanding presence. Raymond Tsai and Rachel deJonge make the best of their small roles.
Director Caire also conducts the band, comprising percussion and multiple synthesizers. Christopher Ward's sets, Terrance Hollaway's lighting, and costumes by Alex Caire and Bryce Turgeon are pleasing. Jaune Buisson's choreography was tightly executed.
What: Local premiere of the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg/Richard Maltby Jr. Vietnam War-set retelling of "Madame Butterfly," directed by Roland "Butch" Caire.
Where: Rivertown Repertory Theatre, 325 Minor St., Kenner.
When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2:30 through Oct. 5.
Tickets: $15 to $28
Theodore P. Mahne is a contributing writer to The Times-Picayune