3 October 2009
Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
Arvada, Colorado, USA
The Heat Is On In... Arvada
Last year the Arvada Center tackled Les Miserables with a production that boasted incredible vocal talent while also displaying some of the technical limitations of a small regional theatre.
Well, now the Center's taken on Miss Saigon, arguably an even more ambitious show from the same writing duo of Boublil and Schonberg. When it hit Broadway back in 1991, ironically evicting Les Miz from the massive Broadway Theatre and moving it down the street to the Imperial, Miss Saigon was the first show to reach the then lofty $100 ticket price. Of course, criticism of the "gouging" was easily argued away: It's an extravagant production that includes the landing of a helicopter, for Pete's sake!
As incredible as it may seem, though, lightning has struck twice at the Arvada Center and they've clearly learned a thing or two from the monumental challenge of Les Miz. This small-scale take on one of theatre's biggest shows hits just about all the right notes.
As with Les Miz, the striking music is what carries Miss Saigon, regardless of all the glitz and gloss of the production itself. That's a lesson well-learned and the Arvada Center's scaled back staging is both simple and effective. Similar to the clever staging of Les Miz, this time the cast shares some of the stage and prop handling with black-cloaked, bamboo-hatted stagehands who move set pieces with Tai Chi-like moves. Clever, simple, effective.
The cast pieced together by for the Arvada Center production is easily this production's greatest asset.
EJ Zimmerman is outstanding as Kim, the story's Madame Butterfly who falls in love with an American soldier and bears his child. Zimmerman sounds virtually identical to Lea Salonga, who originated the character both in London and New York.
Chris, the soldier, is equally well-served by Kevin Vortmann. Together, Zimmerman and Vortmann create a credible romantic affair that goes tragic in the final act.
Of course, the show's quasi-Master of Ceremonies is a sleazy pimp nicknamed the Engineer. Originated by English actor Jonathan Pryce amid all sorts of silly controversy about not casting an Asian to play an Asian, the character can easily veer into sheer caricature if not handled correctly. And there's also that show-stopping number, The American Dream, at the show's conclusion that demands the actor taking on the role do a little bit of everything: Act, sing, dance.
Well, the Arvada production gave the role to Herman Sebek and it was all up to him to get beyond the baggage of Engineers past, particularly Pryce's magnificent spin. At first it seemed as though Sebek wouldn't be able to crack the case, but slowly and surely he warms up the audience, then he has the heat on high by the time that show-stopping dream number takes the stage.
That's not to say all is grand; there are a couple inevitable weaknesses. The primary one is the casting of Doan Mackenzie as Thuy, Kim's arranged-marriage betrothed. Mackenzie doesn't bring enough presence and intimidation to the role. Thuy's basically a maniacal, jealous man who brings with him a menace set to undo the affair between Kim and Chris. Not so much so in Mackenzie's presence.
And, technically, there was an unfortunate technical glitch involving a microphone. The problem seemed to be limited to one character in the early-going of the second act. Certainly a fixable technicality, it nonetheless marred a terrific performance by Sarah Rex as Ellen, Chris' American wife subsequent to his foreign relations.
Miss Saigon at the Arvada Center:
Well staged, costumed, and engineered
Photo: Arvada Center
Otherwise, the Arvada Center's production is a marvel. Following the incredible awkwardness of Stars in Les Miz, dread surrounded the potential embarrassment of the helicopter and Cadillac scenes.
Amazingly, the helicopter scene was handled with a surprising amount of finesse and taste. Same goes for the Cadillac during The American Dream.
Oh yes. The American Dream.
That's when Sebek starts out stage left, on a small terrace supported by bamboo scaffolding. His tale of childhood heartache and yearning begins on the terrace, then he climbs his way down to the main stage, stopping at intervals to continue his sordid shtick. Then things go sublime as he hits the meat of the song. There's a big pink convertible, Asian girls in blonde wigs… Ah. The American showstopper.
Terrific stuff. Sebek seals the deal and earns his gold star as a top-notch Engineer.
Miss Saigon thrived in the 1990s but it hasn't carried on the same legacy as its big Broadway contemporaries, Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera, but this production was an able reminder of the great material Boublil and Schonberg created.
Other highlights include The Movie in My Mind, The Morning of the Dragon and Bui-Doi are all well served by the cast's tremendous vocal talents. And they're equally well-served by simply elegant staging. In particular, Bui-Doi, the big opening number of the second act, goes from a barren stage with a simple, small set of risers and a film projector to a spot-on reconfiguration that is every bit as effective as the original production. That can also be said of Bangkok, which goes over the top with all sorts of gaudy 1970s outfits, lighting and, yeah, prostitutes.