Miss Saigon at Rivertown Rep
Not a few eyebrows were raised when Rivertown Rep announced they were going to be doing Miss Saigon, Alain Boubil & Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s retelling of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (which was itself adapted from David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly) set in the era of the Vietnam War. If "The helicopter, how’re they gonna do the helicopter?" was a valid question, an even more pressing one was how were they gonna cast this challenging show with its multi-racial cast.
Well, never underestimate the imagination and talents of New Orleans’ theater folk. Despite a few quibbles, this Miss was a worthy production that captured the audience’s attention and didn’t let go for two and a half hours.
Coming after Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon was the third of the British blockbusters to reach Broadway. Superior to Phantom’s pap, it lacks Les Miz’s narrative sweep and range of detailed characters. But enough good songs (Sun and Moon, Last Night of the World, and its 11 o’clock number, The American Dream) poke out from the otherwise vanilla score so that, combined with Belasco’s still-absorbing tale and the passions that that ill-advised war continues to elicit, Miss Saigon makes for an eminently entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theater.
Roland "Butch" Caire’s excellent direction gave this production a cinematic flow. The two big production numbers (The Heat is On in Saigon and Bangkok) were visually wonderful, the stage filled with a swarm of action but never feeling cluttered. Caire’s musical direction was also fine, giving the show the propulsive quality of fate.
As Kim, the Butterfly of Miss Saigon, Alexis Bruza’s glorious voice and trusting, passionate portrayal ennobled Kim and made her a true tragic heroine. Daniel deShazo made a suitably white bread Chris, Kim’s Pinkerton, which is not a bad thing as it’s his naivete and innocence in thinking everything can turn out all right that sparks the tragedy. And Vatican Lokey imbued The Engineer, Kim’s pimp who hopes to use her to obtain an American visa, with a superbly assured, demonic presence, making him a survivor at all costs.
Quibbles? The large chorus performed admirably, but tended to make mush of Richard Maltby, Jr.’s lyrics, which might not be such a bad thing as the original French ones seemed to have lost something in translation. Bruza too often reminded one of a silent screen actress; she needs to learn to trust her instincts and not "act" so much. DeShazo, though possessing a fine voice, had a tendency to go flat on his big notes. Lokey could have brought just a touch more pathos to The Engineer, a Eurasian caught in a no man’s land between two cultures (better make-up might’ve helped as it was not entirely clear just from looking at him of his character’s mixed ethnic background). I also wish he had been able to build The American Dream a bit more; he started the number on such a high energy level that he had nowhere to go with it. For this, Caire must share the blame as well.
Lastly, I would’ve preferred if there had been more Asians in the cast to convey the different-ness that confronts the American characters in Viet Nam, but that’s a significant challenge in this city where some talented Vietnamese opted not to participate given the nature of the show’s characters. Fortunately, those cast members of Asian heritage gave the production a vital authenticity.
Overall, Rivertown’s Miss Saigon mesmerizing whole was greater than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts (which included Christopher Ward’s set, Alex Caire’s costumes, Terrance Holloway’s lighting, Jaune Buisson’s choreography and the entire rest of the cast that space constraints prevent me from naming) and augurs very well for future productions there.
And, yes, they pulled off the helicopter quite well.
As for the accompanying buffet, if Andy Messina’s did not provide an Asian-themed repast, the lemon chicken, pecan catfish, penne pasta with ground beef, andouille & chicken gumbo, and green bean almondine were all yummy.