A young tenor, an old pro, and a college-bound “techie” kick things up a notch in Casa Mañana’s solid season-ending production of Miss Saigon, which—as anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock must know—is a take on Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, helicoptered out of early-1900s Japan and set down in the last days of our ill-fated war in Vietnam.
The young tenor is North Texas native Daniel Rowan, who takes a break from a role in New York’s long-running musical The Fantasticks (he was last seen hereabouts in Casa’s Sweeney Todd and Lyric Stage’s My Fair Lady) to play the male lead in Miss Saigon. As Chris, an American marine who’s seen too much of the war, Rowan’s warm onstage presence and gorgeous voice make it easy to see why young bargirl Kim (Jennifer Paz, who performed the role in the first national tour of Saigon) would fall for him in a heartbeat.
On the spectrum of light-to-dark, Chris’ opposite would seem to be the Engineer (Joseph Anthony Foronda), a cold-eyed opportunist who sees Kim as just another item to sell. As played by veteran performer Foronda—who’s had the chance to fine-tune the role on Broadway, in London, and on tour—the half-Asian Engineer twists, twirls and snakes his way through the chaos of Saigon, an almost-comic figure, but so feral and chilling we can’t bring ourselves to laugh. He’s a life force, all right, but the life he’s interested in is strictly his own. And though Kim sees Chris as a rescuing angel and the Engineer as a devil from hell, both men will play a part in her tragedy. These two exciting performances, along with Paz’ well-sung and assured performance as Kim, anchor the show.
The “techie” in question is young designer Chris Norville (just graduated from high school), whose oversized video projections for this production are simply outstanding. The grainy black-and-white news footage of jungle combat and abandoned orphans pulls us back into that world and time, reopening old wounds and emotions, plunging us into the confusion of those years, both in Vietnam and at home. These images add depth and breadth to the production, moving us outward from the personal romance of the story toward a wider vision of war and its cost. Norville, who’s worked closely with Casa’s resident lighting designer Samuel Rushen, already has credits from dozens of local productions and plans to study lighting design at Carnegie Mellon.
Other standouts in the cast are strong-voiced Kent Overshown—last seen in the Memphis touring company that hit Fort Worth earlier this year—as Chris’s clear-eyed marine buddy John, who later becomes an advocate for the abandoned war orphans known as “Bui-Doi”; Heather Botts as Ellen, the fiercely loving and territorial American girl Chris marries after Vietnam; Parker Weathersbee as tiny Tam, a sweet and attentive child whose scenes with Paz are touching; Marc delaCruz as Thuy, Kim’s one-time fiancé, filled with rage at her affair with the enemy; and Dorcas Leung as Gigi, a hardened bargirl who can’t stop playing “The Movie in My Mind”: every time a new American comes her way, she dreams of the safety, the dollar bills, the laughing children of the life he’ll give her in the States.
Director/choreographer Tim Bennett keeps his smallish ensemble on the move and playing bigger than their actual numbers. His dance expertise is on particular display with the quartet of bar girls (Gigi/Leung plus Amanda Jarufe as Yvette, Adrienne Tang as Mimi, and Olivia de Guzman Emile as Yvonne) in the “Bangkok” sequence early in Act Two, with ‘60s go-go booted costumes and wigs by Tammy Spencer and Patricia Delsordo helping to set the scene. Music director Edward G. Robinson, who conducted Miss Saigon on Broadway, here reproduces the big blast of sound that’s the hallmark of the show—impossible to imagine there are just 10 people in the pit—but deftly reins it in for more intimate numbers to let us hear the small touches of the orchestration. And special mention should be made of the efforts of lighting designer Samuel Rushen and sound designer Jonathan Parke, whose atmospheric effects come together—particularly in creating the illusion of a helicopter—to add drama and excitement in almost every scene.
Has there been even one year of the past quarter-century when there hasn’t been a production of Miss Saigon up and running somewhere? Ten years in London, 10 more on Broadway, touring companies crossing the globe, translated into at least 12 languages…and in its 25th anniversary year, original producer Cameron Mackintosh is planning a re-do of Saigon to premiere in London (again) and start things rolling once more.
So, two generations after that war, and a generation after the musical itself premiered in 1989, what’s here for audiences? Miss Saigon’s strengths are on show in the Casa production: a white-hot love story that goes from zero to sixty in one night; a tragic young mother who makes the “ultimate sacrifice” for her child; and an edgy, hard-boiled look at the mess we made in Vietnam. And so are the work’s essential weaknesses: clunky, confusing characterizations (just try to figure out wife Ellen’s true intentions, or why Chris doesn’t work harder to find Kim after the war); elements snatched shamelessly from musicals like South Pacific and Cabaret; blunt-force lyrics that march along on a relentless “blah blah blah blah insert rhyme here” pattern, and which wouldn’t be out of place on an ABBA songsheet—“You will never be free/Not as long as there’s me”; and really, not having much to say about America that doesn’t feel completely stereotypical. (I know, I know: as if Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., creators of Saigon and Les Misérables, give a Saigon street rat’s whatever about this reviewer’s opinion. Laugh at me all the way to the bank, boys.)
So, bottom line: if this is your show, Casa’s production is well worth your time and money. No, there isn’t a helicopter landing onstage—only the sound and fury of one. But we don’t need to see it, do we? The last desperate moment of the war in Vietnam is a picture crazy-glued onto America’s collective memory: the reaching hands, the agonized faces, the leaving behind. Someday, when everyone who had a personal, emotional, or political investment in that war is long gone, Miss Saigon may play much more as a romance than a war story. But we’re not there yet.