One of Broadway’s biggest smash hits of the 1990s, Miss Saigon, now lights up the nights at the San Diego-adjacent Moonlight Amphitheatre with its blend of war, romance, gorgeous melodies, and show-stopping production numbers. In a production directed with sensitivity and dazzle by Steven Glaudini and starring Jennifer Paz in the role which won her the 2008 Ovation Award as Best Actress In A Musical, Miss Saigon provides Broadway pizzazz and operatic passion in equal measure.


As any musical theater aficionado will tell you, 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.

Besides the aforementioned, there is one other major character in the mix—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.”


Perhaps the greatest key to Miss Saigon’s success on Broadway and internationally is its skill at telling an intimate love story in a panoramic setting, 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. Moonlight’s production features a cast of 35, five members larger than CLOSBC’s multiple Ovation winner in 2008 and just about as big as a Broadway cast can get. Still, despite sets and costumes fit for a Hollywood blockbuster, at its heart Miss Saigon remains a star-crossed love story between two people from different worlds.

Another key to Miss Saigon’s 4000+ performance Broadway run is its score—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.


CLOSBC’s Miss Saigon’s claim to greatness was a cast which starred and featured multiple Broadway/National Tour Miss Saigon vets. Moonlight’s equally outstanding revival has its own trump card, a cast made up almost entirely of Miss Saigon newbies, giving it a freshness that few Miss Saigon’s can boast.

It does help that Paz and Engineer Johann Michael Camat have been playing their roles off and on for much of the past two decades. Longtime Ahmanson Theatre subscribers will recall Paz from her nine-month stint as Kim in 1995, and Camat began his association with Miss Saigon as part of the Original Canadian Cast two years earlier. Both performers bring to their roles the kind of depth that comes from experience, sensational Broadway-caliber voices, and charismatic stage presence.

Seventeen years after her Kim debut, Paz still convinces as a virginal teen in early scenes. Still, it is as Kim matures through motherhood and abundant suffering that the award-winner earns audience cheers and tears, most particularly when Kim asserts herself to the point of murder to protect her 3-year-old child. As to Paz’s voice, her soprano remains as glorious as ever

Kamat turns the role of the Engineer into a Eurasian blend of Ben Vareen and Little Richard, and he sells “The American Dream” like nobody’s business.

L.A.’s premiere musical theater romantic lead Douglas Carpenter continues his string of standout performances as Chris, bringing gorgeous operatic pipes and bona fide dramatic skills to the role. Cassandra Murphy’s girl-next-door likeability and power pipes make her one of the best Ellen’s ever. Melvin Robert III plays John with the same vitality that made his Tom Collins in MTW’s Rent so memorable, his commanding “Bui Doi” an Act Two high point. Joseph Andreas brings a menacing sexiness and a terrific tenor to Thuy, Kim’s childhood fiancé and eventual tormentor. UC Irvine student Katherine Brady shines in the cameo role of Gigi with the plaintive “The Movie In My Mind.” Three-year-old Ace Young has the requisite cuteness to play three-year-old Tam.

The ensemble of L.A. and San Diego-based triple-threat talents simply couldn’t be better as witnessed by the presence of two recent Scenie winners in their midst, Jason Evans and Jason Maddy, and Rent alumnus Nick Lorenzini doing some absolutely spectacular acrobatic dancing during “The Morning Of The Dragon.” Completing the group are Jebbel Arce, Sam Ayoub, Eric Badique, Marius Beltran, Joyelle Cabato, Kathleen Calvin, Kevane La’Marr Coleman, Rocky DeHaro, Justin Deater, Riley Faison, Sheila Ferrari, Nadia Guevara, Chester Lockhart, Dante Macatantan, Klarissa Mesee, Marlene Montes, Kevin Jonathan Morin, Ian Parmenter, Drew Ruesch, Matt Takahashi, Mark Velarde, Gabriel Villanueva, Shana Weinstein, and Joyce Yin.

More than any other Miss Saigon I’ve seen, Moonlight’s stands out for its dazzling choreography, by Carlos Mendoza, particularly in “The Evening Of The Dragon,” and of course in “The American Dream.” San Diego quadruple-threat musical director Charlie Reuter (winner of two Scenies for acting and for musical direction) has the cast singing and harmonizing to perfection. Conductor Kenneth Gammie scores big in the orchestra pit with a Great White Way -ready orchestra. The show’s Broadway-quality sets and costumes look to be the original New York/National Tour designs, the latter coordinated by Roslyn Lehman, Carlotta Malone, and Renata Lloyd. Lighting designer Christina L. Munich and sound designer Peter Hashagen join forces to make this Miss Saigon look and sound as great as it does.

Throughout all of the 1990s there were only two places in the U.S. where audiences could see Miss Saigon—in New York, and in whatever city the National Tour had stopped. The show’s licensing to regional theaters like Moonlight has proven an entertainment bonanza for Miss Saigon fans, the luckiest of whom are now those who get to experience its drama, its tears, and its sheer entertainment value under the September stars (and moon) of the Vista, California skies.

Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.
–Steven Stanley
September 11, 2010
Photos: Ken Jacques

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