Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Miss Saigon Lands at NJPAC
Also see Bob's review of The Sound of Music
A success beyond any reasonable expectation is the exceptionally fine production of Miss Saigon, which has arrived at Prudential Hall of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center where it will complete its week long engagement on Sunday, November 9.
The North American tour of a new production of the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg musical (English lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Boublil) has been on the road for more than a year and has bookings into June, 2004.
In lieu of producing a downsized version of the London and Broadway original in order to bring Miss Saigon to new venues, permission was obtained from Cameron Mackintosh by Big League Theatricals, Inc. to design a conceptually original, flexible, lightweight physical production.
The extent of their success is amazing. The lion's share of the credit must go to set designer Adrian Vaux. Regrettably, his name is new to me, but Vaux has been an outstanding set designer for the past forty years both in London and Israel. His set design consists of a large number of overhead lights in the form of paper lanterns which delight the eye and provide a sense of a high and spacious set. There is a stairway toward stage left leading to a platform. This is but one of a number of multi-leveled platforms. Other platforms, often with walled playing areas, are dollied on and off the stage.
Neon and a variety of lights are employed as scenery, as are irregularly placed horizontal rods deployed overhead. Large, open areas of darkness intermingle with these elements to provide a sense of depth, spaciousness and menace. The result is a set which is endlessly flexible, large, open and airy, and full of eye candy. Part and parcel of all this is the gorgeous lighting design of Charlie Morrison.
Employing "computerized effects and high-tech video imaging," the huge, clear and three dimensional appearing projected helicopter far exceeds the impact of the heavy, laughably overhyped, truncated contraption seen in the original Broadway production.
Director Mitchell Lemsky, long associated with Miss Saigon and Cameron Mackintosh productions, uses the production elements with fluidity and pace. With the help of a strong cast, Lemsky also manages to deliver all of the emotional power of the book. His achievement is all the more remarkable when seen in the cavernous environs of Prudential Hall in Newark's luxurious Performing Arts Center. Frankly, I had a great deal of trouble focusing in on the small figures on the distant stage and the often indistinguishable words. Despite this, Lemsky's extraordinarily fine production miraculously prevailed. As I write this, it dawns on me that this is the most successful of the three productions of Miss Saigon that I have seen.
Jon Jon Briones makes for an outstanding Engineer. His "The American Dream" and "If You Want to Die in Bed" are showstoppers. A veteran of the London production, Briones embodies and embraces the mixed race, self hating Vietnamese hustler. He never sees himself as sleazy or morally bankrupt because he sees his actions and values as being the same as those of the Americans whose success he admires and desires. The subtle and artistic manner in which this portrayal leads to a questioning of our values should be studied by ham fisted, polemical writers who allow their disaffection and bile to poison their logic and betray their goals.
Equally outstanding is Jennifer Paz' Kim. Her performance is heartbreaking and totally believable. Her singing is glorious throughout. Each of the melodies which Schönberg has written for Kim is lovely, and Paz executes all of them with a depth of feeling and lyrical beauty that are outstanding. She generates a powerful emotional rush when we first meet Kim's son and she sings "You Will Not Touch Him." In the program, Paz and Jennifer Hubilla are each listed as playing Kim "at certain performances."
Alan Gillespie is a convincing Chris and displays vocal prowess. At times, he comes on a little strong, but overall, he is very, very good. Wallace Smith is mostly on target as his buddy, John, but lacks the vocal chops to deliver the goods in the powerful "Bui-Doi." On the other hand, a very strong impression is made by Rachel Kopf as Ellen, Chris' wife. This young performer comes across as a vocal and dramatic powerhouse. Kopf makes a very large impression in an important but relatively short role.
Mario Tadeo is miscast as Thuy. When he first appears berating Kim, I thought he was portraying an American G.I. rather than a Vietnamese insurgent. Ramona DuBarry's shaky "The Movie in My Mind" gave me early worries about the whole enterprise. Jennifer Paz completed the song beautifully, and it was smooth sailing the rest of the way.
Jodi Moccia's choreography is very good. For the first time ever, I did not cringe at what I refer to as the Ho Chi Min ballet. Andreane Neofitou's costumes are lovely, appropriate and utile. They are on a par with the other fine production elements.
NJPAC deserves the appreciation of its audience for bringing such a fine production to New Jersey. To my pleasant surprise, Miss Saigon is starting to look like a true classic.
Incidentally, it is beyond my comprehension how this production could have a performance in Newark, New Jersey on November 9 and then perform on November 11 in Gainesville, Florida. I would love to see a television news magazine feature a segment on how this is accomplished.
It is recommended that those in other parts of the country, who happen upon this review, check the web page www.misssaigontour.com/route.htm to see if this outstanding production is coming their way.
Miss Saigon continues through November 9 at Prudential Hall at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, One Center Street, Newark, NJ. Box Office: 1-800-466-5722; online: www.njpac.org
Boublil and Schönberg's Miss Saigon. Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil; adapted from the original French lyrics by Alain Boublil; additional material by Richard Maltby, Jr.; directed by Mitchell Lemsky. Cast: Jon Jon Briones (the Engineer); Jennifer Paz (Kim); Ramona DuBarry (Gigi); Alan Gillespie (Chris); Wallace Smith (John); Tadeo (Thuy); Rachel Kopf (Ellen); Jonathan Wade (Tam); and Emerita Alcid; Sharon Lee; Cynthia Tomm; Rae Toledo; Debralee M. Daco; Laurie Cadevida; Chad Ackerman; Richard Barth; Victor Manuel Borjas; D. William Hughes; Jonathan Hack; Miles Johnson: Craig Laurie; Dane Stokinger; Jesse Sullivan; E.J. Arriola; Eymard Meneses Cabling; Alex Rodriguez; Cesar Cipriano; Mel Sagrado Maghuyop; Manuel Pablo Tuason; M.C. Enrique Braganza III; Michael J. Bulatao; Swings Liza Bugarin, John Jimenez, Yuki Ozeki; Alternates Jennifer Hubilla (Kim); Ty Harrison Kublickis (Tam).