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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Strong Leads Crown 5th Avenue's
Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon
Emy Basic
Thanks to two vets of the long-running Broadway and national companies, The 5th Avenue Theatre's production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg Miss Saigon is likely to thrill the show's aficionados. Director David Bennett's thoughtful, more intimate version of the show also proves relatively easy to digest for those of us who have never found this Vietnamization of Puccini's Madame Butterfly much more than a footnote in the annals of the late 20th century musical theatre canon.

Borrowing elements from not only Madame Butterfly but also from South Pacific, West Side Story, Cabaret and their own, far superior, Les Miserables Boublil and Schönberg's romantic tale is set during and three years after the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese. Soldier Chris falls for novice bar girl Kim in a big way and a one-night stand seems destined to blossom into an enduring love affair. But then Chris is whisked out of Saigon, unable to take Kim with him, and unknowingly leaving her with child. Three years later, Kim remains convinced that Chris will be back to take her and their son back to America. With the help of an erstwhile pimp and scoundrel known as The Engineer, an old Army chum of Chris', and some twists of fate, Chris does learn that Kim is alive and raising their son Tam. But after a year of searching and mourning Kim, Chris found new love and life with his American wife Ellen. Their fateful trip to offer financial support to Kim and her son leads to a fatal and heartbreaking choice by Kim, to put her son's life and happiness before her own.

Emy Basic's Kim is the heart and soul of this production. Having seen three other Kims, including the overrated Lea Salonga, I found Basic paints the most complex, haunting and touching portrait of this character in my experience. As Chris, Louis Hobson sings well, and gives an earnest, if sometimes overly melodramatic performance. However, he and Basic do have a palpable chemistry in their love songs "Sun & Moon" and "The Last Night of the World," despite the banal lyrics in these songs. Hobson's best musical moment is his first major one, with the pulsing ballad "Why God Why?" Basic is sublime on her heart-wrenching "I'd Give My Life For You" and blends well with Candice Donehoo's Ellen on the powerful "I Still Believe." Donehoo, though a fine vocalist, can't overcome the poorly written, developed and inadvertently unsympathetic character of Ellen, and is also saddled with the show's worst song, "Now That I've Seen Her."

As the Engineer, Raul Aranas is all you could ask for: A conniving, charismatic, self-serving, foolhardy pseudo narrator, only vaguely connected to the main story, but handed large chunks of stage time, which he commands brilliantly. Aranas shines like a beacon in his first act showcase, "If You Want to Die in Bed," and especially in his big, penultimate production number "The American Dream." Kingsley Leggs as Chris' war buddy is a strong physical and vocal asset to the production, especially leading the anthem "Bui Doi" and helping play down its more cloying aspects. Brandon O' Neill has some excellent moments as Thuy, Kim's original, arranged fiancee, but he is the victim of some really bad, Night of the Living Dead make-up when he appears in a nightmare segment. The ensemble, though a bit on the smallish size for a show this epic, is accomplished and handle Jody Ripplinger's variably effective, though not terribly inspired, choreography with precision and élan. Musical director Ian Eisendrath and a top-flight orchestra do far more for the score than it does for them.

Technical production elements, as usual at the 5th, are accomplished. Michael Anania's sets (yes, including a helicopter!) are at their best in the garish nightclub scenes and in "The American Dream" number, while lighting designer Tom Sturge does another great job, and sound designers Andy Horka and David Partridge strike a good balance between the orchestra and the performers. Stephen Hollenbeck's costumes are flashily seedy, authentically military and, save a really dowdy outfit for Ellen, right on the money.

Now that Seattle has seen Miss Saigon three times in the past decade, I would hope a long hiatus is due, but based on the response of a lot of the opening night audience, I bet it will be back before you can say Ho Chi Minh.

Miss Saigon runs through April 30 at the 5th Avenue Theatre,1308 5th Avenue, in downtown Seattle. For more information visit the 5th's website at www.5thavenuetheatre.org.


Photo: Tom Baday



- David-Edward Hughes



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