It’s a long and winding road which leads a Broadway smash to regional  theaters, one that can take years or even decades. In most cases, a show must finish its Broadway run and its national tours (that’s tours with an “s” because major hits often have three or more national tours). That’s why you won’t find still-running Broadway hits like The Phantom Of The Opera or Mamma Mia at your local CLO any time soon. And that is why Miss Saigon at Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities is such an event.


Miss Saigon played for nearly 10 years (and over 4000 performances) on Broadway, its run ending in 2001.  Still, it was not until three years later that the show got its first L.A. area regional production, the multiple Ovation Award winner put on by the Fullerton Civic Light Opera.
Now, four years after that comes only the second regional production in our area, which takes advantage of the spectacular FCLO sets, but improves on that deservedly touted production by featuring major Broadway star power in the leading roles.

For those who’ve been living under a rock, Miss Saigon updates Madame Butterfly to the last days of the Vietnam War. GI Chris, near the end of a lengthy tour of duty in Saigon, meets Kim, fresh from the countryside and the newest employee at the Dreamland Night Club, where the girls do more than dance for their supper.  It is love at first sight for both, and after a night of passion, Chris invites Kim to live with him and they have a private “wedding” with Kim’s fellow bargirls in attendance.  The couple’s time together is brief, however, as only two weeks after their first meeting, Saigon falls and Chris ends up evacuated from Vietnam on the last helicopter out, with a pregnant Kim unable to break through the barricades surrounding the U.S. Embassy. Three years later, with the Viet Cong in power, Kim is the mother of a little boy, Tam, and Chris is back in the States, married to Ellen, yet unable to forget the young Vietnamese woman he left behind. Upon learning of Tam’s existence from Army buddy John, Chris and Ellen fly to Bangkok to meet Chris’s son.

Perhaps the biggest key to Miss Saigon’s Broadway and international success is that it tells an intimate love story amidst a panoramic backdrop, much like the Cinemascope epics of the 1950s and 60s.  Any production which features a helicopter descending from the rafters and an actual 1959 pink Cadillac convertible, tailfins and all, is bound to be spectacular from the get-go, and that Miss Saigon is indeed.  The current production features a cast of 30, about as big as a Broadway cast can get, and sets and costumes fit for a Hollywood blockbuster, yet at its heart, it is a star-crossed love story between two people from different worlds.

Key also to Miss Saigon’s long Broadway run is its score, with music by Claude- Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil. Of all the sung-through musicals of the past few decades (i.e. musicals in which even dialog is sung), Miss Saigon’s has quite possibly the loveliest score, with haunting melodies in songs like “Why God, Why,” “I Still Believe,” “Bui-Doi,” “Now That I’ve Seen Her,” and the most exquisite of all, “Sun & Moon.”  (“You are sunlight and I moon joined by the gods of fortune. Midnight and high noon sharing the sky. We have been blessed, you and I.”) The between-song dialog flows so easily to the notes of Schönberg’s delicate melodies you almost forget that it’s being sung.

Besides Chris and Kim, there is one other major character in the mix and that is the Eurasian known simply as The Engineer. Initially the owner of the Dreamland Night Club, The Engineer manages to escape to Thailand. There, despite straightened circumstances, he is, as they say, still standing, and still dreaming of a better life in the U.S., which he celebrates in the 11th hour showstopper, “The American Dream.”

In the role of The Engineer, Broadway’s Kevin Bailey may be an honorary Asian, but he commands the stage in the same way that London and Broadway original Jonathan Pryce surely must have.  Bailey’s performance is electric, larger than life, and never more so than when he fills an otherwise empty stage with talent, singing “If You Want To Die In Bed,” a wow of a song and a wow of a performance.
Jennifer Paz has been playing Kim off-and-on for the past 15 plus years, including a 9-month stint at the Ahmanson in the first national tour, but her performance remains fresh, and as touching and powerful as ever, and she looks scarcely a day older than when she first undertook the role. Paz’s Kim is never more powerful than in moments when the shy country girl asserts herself to the point of murder (and worse) to protect her 3-year-old child, and her voice is like that of the proverbial angel.
Eric Kunze played Chris during the Broadway run, and one cannot imagine a more handsome and charismatic lead.  Not only does Kunze have the voice and the looks and the acting chops, his boy next door quality immediately convinces the audience of his sincerity. His emotional “Why, God Why?” is heartbreaking.
Another Broadway Miss Saigon vet is local treasure Misty Cotton, reprising her role as Ellen, Chris’s American wife.  Cotton, who recently won a deserved L.A. Drama Critics Circle award for A Little Night Music, proves as she did in that show that a supporting role can yield stellar results when in the right hands. Cotton brings shivers with her emotional rendition of “Now That I’ve Seen Her,” and like Kunze, makes Ellen a sympathetic character despite being the other woman.
Bonifacio Deoso, Jr. likewise brings his previous Miss Saigon experience (including being the only principal to repeat his FCLO role) to the pivotal role of Thuy, Kim’s cousin who has become a member of the Viet Cong and stands in the way of her happiness with Chris.  As with the other Miss Saigon vets, Deoso gives a performance that is only strengthened by his years with the show.
Rounding out the star sextet is Harrison White, whose fabulous work in the Pasadena Playhouse’s Purlie remains a bright memory from the summer of 2005. Here, White is Chris’s best friend John, whose powerful Act 2 opener, “Bui Doi,” is one of the show’s most stirring moments, and beautifully performed by the Broadway vet.

CLOSBC’s ensemble is filled with the finest musical theater talent L.A. has to offer, as bargirls, soldiers, Vietnamese, and tourists in Bangkok. Though only voluptuous Heather Mieko as Gigi gets her own solo (“The Movie In My Mind,” which she sings beautifully), each ensemble member deserves credit for making this Miss Saigon what it is: Luis Avila, Kathleen Chen, Chris Ciccarelli, Travis Davidson, Liza B. Domingo, Jay Donnell, Janelle Dote, Jasmine Ejan, Sheila Ferrari, Juan Guillen, Enrico Lagasca, Benjamin James Marshall, Antonio D. Matabang, Lana McKissack, Michael Moon, Emmie Nagata, Jo Patrick, Glenn Shiroma, Robert Sean Thompson, Justin Vasquez, Karl Warden, and Jason  Webb.  Olivia Aniceto and Aidan Masinsin alternate as Tam. Marc Oka (who was part of the original Broadway cast as well as having served as assistant choreographer and dance captain) performs the same triple duties here, for which the current production is certainly in his debt.

Helming CLOSBC’s Miss Saigon are director Stephanie A. Coltrin and technical director Christopher Beyries, and one can only marvel at their success in creating a production of this magnitude. Major kudos to both, and to choreographer Karen Nowicki, whose night club dances sizzle as do the high kicks in “The American Dream.”

Technically, this production tops pretty much any other show around, with Lucky Cardwell’s imposing Asian-themed sets, dramatic lighting by Darrell J. Clark, costumes galore by Mela Hoyt-Heydon, and John Feinstein’s sound design (love that helicopter noise in surround sound!).

Musical director Alby Potts leads the 18-piece CLOSBC orchestra, which Executive Director/Producer James A. Blackman, III rightly describes as the best there is.

Finally, there is CLOSBC itself, which has probably the biggest stage to fill, and does so with Class A productions time after time.  CLOSBC has the distinction of being the only L.A. area CLO whose season features 4 full-sized, big cast musicals year after year (no “cast of 5” shows here).  

It’s been a long wait for Miss Saigon to make it to our area in a locally produced production, but the wait has been well worth it with results as spectacular as those on view through May 18th at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts  Center.  

Don’t miss the Miss! 

Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach. 

–Steven Stanley
May 6, 2008
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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