When recreating one of Broadway’s biggest smash hits of the 1990s, there’s perhaps no better way of keeping things fresh than to start off with a creative team brand new to the project. That’s precisely the approach that McCoy Rigby Entertainment have taken with the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts’ Miss Saigon, a production guaranteed to thrill Southland audiences with its epic blend of war, romance, gorgeous melodies, and show-stopping production numbers. Directed by Brian Kite with an eye to the authentic, this Miss Saigon focuses on the human relationships central to the story while maintaining the elements of spectacle that have been thrilling audiences worldwide for more than two decades.

 Not only is this Kite’s first crack at Miss Saigon, it’s choreographer Dana Solimando’s and musical director John Glaudini’s as well, and to make matters more authentic than ever before, this Miss Saigon stars the oh-so winning Cal State Fulerton Musical Theatre grad Jacqueline Nguyen, as Kim, the very first time the role has gone to an actress of Vietnamese heritage. In fact, Nguyen’s own mother was about Kim’s age when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and Miss Saigon fell for her American soldier Chris.

As any musical theater aficionado will tell you, Miss Saigon updates Madame Butterfly to the last days of the Vietnam War. GI Chris (Kevin Odekirk), near the end of a lengthy tour of duty in Saigon, meets Kim (Nguyen), 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 (Ken Shim), and Chris is back in the States, married to Ellen (Cassandra Murphy), yet unable to forget the young Vietnamese woman he left behind. Upon learning of Tam’s existence from Army buddy John (Lawrence Cummings), 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 (Joseph Anthony Foronda). 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 has been 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.

 At the same time, La Mirada’s ensemble of twenty-five is fourteen fewer than the Original Broadway cast, a downscaling perfectly in tune with director Kite’s vision of a more intimate Miss Saigon, one which places its tragic love story is front and center, with spectacle providing a backdrop instead of the show’s raison d’être.

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.

Director Kite made clear from the very first rehearsal that this was not going to be just another Miss Saigon when he asked the cast to table read Maltby & Boubil’s book/lyrics aloud as if it were a straight play, virtually unheard of when starting off a sung-through musical, but a technique that got his actors to thinking about the words, and what they said about the characters from whose mouths they sprang.

No wonder then, that this Miss Saigon is as exquisitely acted as it is sung.

In an auspicious La Mirada debut, Nguyen makes for an absolutely enchanting Kim, every bit as gutsy as she is gentle and loving. As the Engineer, Foronda gives a tour-de-force performance hewn from years of playing the role on Broadway and worldwide. Odekirk, besides possessing heavenly pipes and leading man looks, never leaves a shred of doubt about his love for Kim. Murphy’s Ellen is as three-dimensional as I’ve seen it played, and sung to perfection. Cummings shines too as the best friend any soldier could wish for, his “Bui-Doi” sung with sincerity and depth. Aiden Park plays Thuy, Kim’s childhood fiancé and eventual tormentor, with requisite menace and a powerful tenor. Statuesque stunner April Malina belts out Gigi’s plaintive “The Movie In My Mind” with the best of them. Five-year-old Shim wins hearts in an instant as Tam.

 La Mirada’s Miss Saigon features an especially strong ensemble, including a number of performers accustomed to playing leads and major featured roles. Jenn Aédo, Ryan Castellino, Daniel Dawson, Jasmine Ejan, Chris Holly, Nancy Lam, Betty Le, Patrick Loyd, Patrick Lundquist, Ashley Matthews, Daniel Ryan May, Klarissa Mesee, Melinda Porto, dance captain/assistant choreographer Stefan Raulston, Kalen Sakima, Clay Stefanki, and Estevan Valdes excel not merely as singers and dancers, but in dramatic mode as well, from some particularly erotic bar action to the mix of panic and despair they display as helicopters evacuate the last American troops.

Solimando not only choreographs this production “from the ground up,” she does so with an authenticity not always paramount in the mind of Miss Saigon choreographers, notably in the Vietnamese dance moves and acrobatics of “The Morning Of The Dragon.” Nguyen and fellow Vietnamese-American castmate Le have also insured that “The Ceremony” gets sung in Vietnamese and not, as before, in nonsense syllables that only sound like the real thing to foreign ears.

Musical director Glaudini conducts a terrific orchestra, which features six pit singers (Stephen Amundson, Melissa Batalles, Jeff Blair, Abby Bolin, Samara Otero, and Amber Snead). No wonder this Miss Saigon sounds great, with sound designer Julie Ferrin insuring a crisp, clear mix of miked voices and instruments. (Ferrin gets extra kudos for the surround sound helicopter roar and other assorted war effects.)

Dustin J. Cardwell’s scenic design, created for FCLO’s production seven years ago, replicates the look of a Broadway production though on a somewhat smaller, more portable scale. Mela Hoyt-Heydon’s costumes are all-around splendid, with special attention paid to authenticity in the traditional Vietnamese outfits. Steven Young’s lighting dazzles, as always. Terry Hanrahan designed the production’s numerous properties and Kaitlyn McCoy the cast’s numerous wigs.

 Julia Flores is casting director, Lisa Palmire assistant stage manager, Buck Mason production manager, David Cruise technical director, Donna R. Parsons production stage manager, and Brian Baker associate musical director.

That a production as epic as this one was rehearsed in a mere two and a half weeks is testament to the professionalism of the entire McCoy Rigby cast, creative team, and crew. Unlike productions of Peter Pan, Happy Days, Camelot, and the upcoming Jekyll & Hyde that were/are Broadway and/or tour-bound, Miss Saigon plays only four weeks in La Mirada and an extra weekend in Riverside, making this achievement all the more astounding.

Final verdict: Even those who’ve seen Miss Saigon before won’t want to miss this Miss.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

Fox Performing Arts Center, 3801 Mission Inn Avenue, Riverside.

–Steven Stanley
April 18, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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