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Miss Saigon
Manatee Players

Also see Bill's review of Rebecca Kilgore's Some Like It Hot: The Music of Marilyn Monroe


William E. Masuck and Holly Rizzo
The Manatee Players have finally opened their new theater, The Manatee Performing Arts Center, for a soft opening, and what better way to do it than with a spectacular production? Producing Artistic Director Rick Kerby has directed and choreographed a vivid production of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's sophomore effort Miss Saigon, written with an assist from Richard Maltby, Jr. with English lyrics. It is loosely based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly; the basic story of a wartime romance and abandonment remains the same, and other important plot points are restructured as the period shifts from between WWI and WWII to during the Vietnam Conflict. The authors present a gripping story, which my companion tells me gets the feel of Vietnam circa mid-1960s very right.

If Schonberg and Boublil's masterpiece is Les Misérables (which Manatee Players will produce as their initial offering in August-September 2013), Miss Saigon shows many of the same strengths of musical story telling. Except for "The Morning of the Dragon" sequence in the first act which tells of the reunification of North and South Vietnam and the scene of the actual fall of Saigon in the second act, the piece is tightly constructed. Highlights from the score include "Why God Why," "The Last Night of the World," and "Sun and Moon," all part of Kim and Chris' budding romance, as well as "The Movie in My Mind" and "The American Dream."

Rick Kerby has cast this show with an ear toward strong voices, a good choice with a music heavy show. Holly Rizzo delivers an emotionally strong performance as Kim. There is a rumor that she is still in high school, but I don't believe everything I hear. William E. Masuck is a vocally very strong Chris, a demanding role with a very high range. The third leading role, The Engineer, is problematic. I have seen Miss Saigon four times before, and only once has the part been satisfactorily played. The character is a pimp and other assorted low life things as he claws his way through his war-torn country, yet must engage the audience's sympathy to an extent. Only Jonathan Pryce, in his Tony Award winning performance with the original Broadway Cast was convincing. Omar Montes in this difficult role sings better than anyone I have seen previously; it is often cast with character singers. Still, he is too likeable, not oily enough.

Brian Chunn as Chris' buddy John gets one of the standout songs, "Bui-doi," to open the second act, and he delivers powerfully. The audience that I saw the show with appeared to be stunned by the power of the saga of half-breed children and their fate. In other supporting parts Sarah Cassidy as Gigi, Channing Wear (alternating with Wendy James Brown) as Ellen, and Ian Weir as Thuy are all excellent. The entire ensemble is excellent, keeping the usually boring "The Morning of the Dragon" exciting visually, especially the three men performing acrobatics center stage.

The stage at the Manatee Performing Arts Center is much bigger than what was available at the old Riverview Theater, with more elaborate stage machinery. Marc Lalosh leading the design team with scenery and projections has done an outstanding job, not surprising for someone who a few years ago won a national community theater award for designing Sunday in the Park with George for Manatee Players. Here he uses multiple sets of bamboo blinds which open and close as the back drop, highly effective for oriental atmosphere. Set pieces roll in and out for different settings. Costumes by David Walker and Georgina Willmot and Lighting by Joseph P. Oshry are part of the overall excellence of the production. With a new facility it can be expected that gremlins will be lurking and they wreaked havoc with the sound design in the first act of the performance I attended. Things were mostly fixed for the second act, but still I had the feeling that new equipment has not been mastered quite yet.

All this excellence would be for naught without fine support from the pit. Led by Aaron Cassette, a six-piece ensemble sounds almost as full as what is fronted for Broadway productions nowadays. Miss Saigon is an epic story, and the music must maintain a strong forward sweep for maximum effectiveness, which it does.

Congratulations to Manatee Players on their new home and this outstanding production, which is completely sold out until the end of the run. A waiting list is kept at every performance for any empty seats. Next season has been announced and highlights would seem to be Les Misérables, Young Frankenstein, Our Town, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Shrek, the Musical.

Manatee Players presents Miss Saigon at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton; 941 748-0111; manateeplayers.com

Cast:
The Engineer: Omar Montes
Kim: Holly Rizzo
Gigi: Sarah Cassidy
John: Brian Chunn
Chris: William E. Masuck
Thuy: Ian Weir
Tam: Madison Garrett
Ellen: Channing Weir/Wendy James Brown
Ensemble: John Andruzzi, Alex Beach, Sabrina Bowen, Tahlia Byers, Lee-Enn Chung, John Clewis, Tara Collandra, Johana Davila, Will Dixon, Steven Drake, Jason Ellis, Kaitlin Folsom, William Hellem, Paul Hernandez, Zachary Hlavac, Brandon Jamora, Todd Keefe, Joseph Rebella, Allyson Robertson, Kathryn Sandberg, Emma Slotabec, Corrine Woodland, Katie Zanders.

Director/Choreographer: Rick Kerby
Musical Direction: Aaron Cassette
Lighting Design: Joseph P. Oshry
Scenery & Projections: Marc Lalosh
Costumes: David Walker & Georgina Willmott
Sound Design: Matt Voye
Production Stage Manager: Kristin Ribble

Orchestra
Conductor/Keyboard: Aaron Cassette
Second Keyboard: Christine Allen-Bruno
Trumpet: Victor Mongillo
Reeds: Tari Booth,br>Trombone: Joe Wolf
Percussion: John Januszewski


Photo: Thomas Bender, Sarasota Herald Tribune, used with permission of Manatee Players

--William S. Oser



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