Having now seen a grand total of seven major productions of Miss Saigon, I’m going to go out on a limb and say: If Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre’s reimagining of the 1991-2001 Broadway megasmash isn’t the very best of the bunch (which it may well be), it is certainly the freshest, grittiest, and most original staging I’ve seen since first experiencing Miss Saigon’s First National Tour at the Ahmanson way back in 1995.

Credit Neil Dale’s inspired direction, Janet Renslow’s innovative choreography, a sensational young cast, and a brand-new scenic design for making this Miss Saigon unlike the many which have preceded it and must-see musical theater for anyone who loves this contemporary classic—or may be seeing it for the very first time.

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.

 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. Previously reviewed productions have featured a realistic-looking helicopter descending from the rafters and an actual 1959 pink Cadillac convertible, tailfins and all. Candlelight Pavilion’s Miss Saigon does without these two attention getters, though with a cast of twenty-four, stunning costumes, and symphonic pre-recorded orchestral tracks, this latest Miss Saigon retains more than enough spectacle to please the pickiest fan while never forgetting that it is, at its heart, 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,” one which until now has always includes the abovementioned pink Cadillac with the biggest tail fins in the history of General Motors.

Candlelight dispenses with that pink behemoth of a Caddy, its absence scarcely noticed thanks to choreographer Renslow’s reimagining of“The American Dream” as a surreal Busby Berkeley/A Chorus Line production number with plenty of high kicks and pizzazz—and a stellar performance from Eymard Cabling as a devilishly sexy, seductive, scene-stealing Engineer.

 As for the missing helicopter (its place taken by a CGI projection as in the non-union tour), anyone who sees Dale and Renslow’s grippingly cinematic reimagining of “Kim’s Nightmare” will have no reason to complain. Instead of a single chain link fence stretching across the stage, Candlelight’s Miss Saigon features several set pieces which GIs and Vietnamese push into multiple configurations, each one offering yet another striking, chaotic view of Americans and natives attempting to escape from a Saigon gone mad.

Dale’s and Renslow’s thrilling staging of “The Heat In On In Saigon” signals from the get-go that this will be a grittier Miss Saigon than most, turning Dreamland from neon-flashy nightclub into a darker, starker place, a whorehouse filled with sex, drugs, and violence in which each onstage character is telling his or her own compelling story.

The same holds true in Act Two’s “What A Waste,” with its mix of hustlers, hookers, and American and Japanese tourists, no mere cardboard figures this time but back-storied individuals each and every one.

Candlelight’s Miss Saigon leaves no doubt that sex figures as much as romance in Chris and Kim’s first night together, the latter flashing her bare back before their passionate embrace fades to black.

 “The Wedding Ceremony” has been moved from Kim’s room to Dreamland, the bargirls decorating the club with lighted Chinese lanterns before launching into the “Dju Vui Vai”’s exquisite, celestial harmonies.

A number of these changes have clearly been inspired by Candlelight’s scenic design, credited as “by” Dwight Richard Odle and “adapted by” Dale and Orlando Montes, but in actuality an imaginative new vision inspired by Odle’s Broadway original, one which mixes set pieces from previous Candlelight productions and new ones built specifically for this show. Every Miss Saigon I’ve seen before has looked the same. This one most definitely does not.

Equity guest artist Cabling’s dazzlingly tour-de-force work as The Engineer is but one of many absolutely superb performances delivered by an otherwise non-union cast.

As Kim, Nicole Santiago-Barredo creates a heartbreakingly young flower in a hothouse garden run amok, acts the part with a mix of delicacy and guts, and sings with equal parts sweetness, forcefulness, and grit.

Eduardo Enrikez combines power, sex appeal, and exquisite pipes to make this Chris one of the most dynamic ever. Colette Peters makes Ellen a memorable creation as well, singing gloriously and revealing through first-rate acting chops a young wife facing an unexpected, life-altering challenge to her marriage.

Not only does James Oronoz sing “Bui Doi” with a gorgeous deep tenor, his boyish good looks remind us that, Chris’s best army buddy John is a barely-out-of-his-teens GI confronting adult challenges his back-at-home peers could scarcely imagine. A charismatic, vocally powerful Joseph Andreas is another standout as Thuy, Kim’s cousin and childhood fiancé who is not about to let his betrothed throw him over for a foreign devil.

Stella Kim is terrific too in the cameo role of bargirl Gigi, whose crowning as Miss Saigon inspires a powerful rendition of “Movie In My Mind” (and a catfight with the other bar girls). Little Kyle Leeper is an adorable Tam.

Supporting these principal players is an all-around topnotch triple-threat ensemble: Marie Gutierrez, Elaine Loh, Shay Louise, Andrea Somera, and Amanda Mae Steel as bargirls; Chaz Feuerstine, Arthur Johansen, Orlando Montes, Jayson Puls, Justin Matthew Segura, and Eric Taylor as GIs; and Marius Beltran, Lorenzo Caunan, Fernando Christopher, Garrick Macatangay, and Peter Varvel as Vietnamese. Johansen and dance captain Taylor merit special mention for their athletic, acrobatic moves in “Morning Of The Dragon.”

Desmond Clark gets top marks for his musical direction, the cast performing to glorious orchestral tracks recorded specifically for this production under David Lamoureux’s baton and giving Candlelight’s Miss Saigon a 70mm surround-stereo sound.

 Costumes furnished by Fullerton Civic Light Opera are stunning creations (coordinated by Jenny Wentworth), which Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design makes look even better, as it does Dale’s and Montes’s one-of-a-kind set. Danielle Martin is assistant to the director and choreographer.

Logan Grosjean is stage manager.

Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater bills their latest as “a new production of Miss Saigon.” It is that, and then some. Expect to be moved to tears and cheers by a Miss Saigon quite unlike any you might have seen before.

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.  Appetizers, desserts, beverages and waiters gratuity are additional. Cocktails, appetizers, entrees, and desserts are to die for and the service courteous and attentive.

–Steven Stanley
August 25, 2012
Photos: Isaac James Creative

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