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Miss Saigon
Broadway by the Bay
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of tokyo fish story

Danielle Mendoza and Terrence Sullivan
Photo by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin
The story originating from Puccini's much-beloved opera Madame Butterfly is well enough known that most audience members arrive anticipating the tragic ending to its ill-fated love story. Decade-long runs both in London and New York in the 1990s as well as continual, packed-house tours worldwide these past twenty years also mean that many will have seen an earlier version of Miss Saigon, the multi-award-winning hit of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Richard Maltby, Jr. (music), and Alain Boublil (lyrics). But what may surprise and astound those fortunate enough to make their way to the historic Fox Theatre in Redwood City to see the latest Miss Saigon is that Broadway by the Bay is staging this musical based in the post Vietnam War era with a heavy nod to the current immigrant controversies and crises in Europe and within our own borders.

From opening glimpses during the overture of suitcase-carrying families frightfully fleeing amidst gun-aiming soldiers to later harrowing scenes of crowded boats surrounded by angry ocean waves to multiple-angle views of crying mobs pressed against wire fences frantic to get to the other side, this production often feels it could be Greece and Macedonia in 2016 rather than Southeast Asia in 1975. Director Jasen Jeffrey has taken a modern monolith of a musical, updated its relevance to today's audiences, and still retained, with many ingenuous choices, its ageless, heart-tugging themes of the risks taken and sacrifices made when all humans, anywhere on the globe, seek freedom, a better life, and the love of another, all made the more desperate when faced with prejudices of race and cultural differences.

A soldier (Chris) falls unexpectedly heads over heels in love with a first-night call girl (Kim) just arrived from a war-ravaged village. Their month of mutual, genuine attraction is surrounded by a collapsing Saigon in the closing days of the Vietnam War. Their few days of love-making retreat are peppered uninvitingly by her pimp (aka The Engineer) who wants to use their love as his ticket to America, by Chris's friend John who sees nothing but upcoming disaster in this hot romance of the moment, and by Kim's Communist betrothed cousin Thuy who shows up wanting to whisk her away from the Yankee scum. Missed connections between the two lovers in those final hours of panic-stricken retreat from Saigon made famous by reporters' front-page photos and television's shocking videos, mean the soldier heads home, leaving a bride-in-name—if not on legal paper—with a son soon to be born.

Three years pass while she faithfully awaits his return, barely surviving the new regime's cruelty or her horrific boat escape with her son to the sex-trade streets of Bangkok. Plagued by nightly dreams of the girl he left behind, the ex-solider remarries and tries to move on with his life in the U.S. But his friend's discovery of the whereabouts of the survived girl and the existence of a son surely send the man and his now-wife to an ill-starred rendezvous and the tragic ending all audiences expect but are still tearfully shocked to witness.

With a voice not of a diva but of a young, still-developing girl not ready yet for the forced womanhood she faces, Danielle Mendoza sings in soft, breathy tones "The Movie in My Mind" and establishes up front that she will play in her own way the part of Kim that won Kea Salonga West End and Broadway accolades. Her innocence shines through both in vocals and in a face that lights up in hope and belief of love's promise as she joins with her soldier love in "Sun and Moon," a duet whose temperature rises palatably as they caress and sing, eye-to-eye, inches apart. As Kim's situation worsens, her vocals deepen with resonance and the determination of her own survival and that of her son ("I'd Give My Live for You"). Yet she retains a young girl's na├»ve hope in her voice as she sings, "When moonlight fills my room ... I know you will return" long after her soldier has returned home and never contacted her.

From his opening "Why God Why?" and his first duet with Kim ("Sun and Moon"), Terence Sullivan's tenor voice leaps with ease and clarity along the scale and sustains a hold on notes with stunning beauty. He creates with Ms. Mendoza a bond that is as unpredictable as that of Romeo and Juliet and yet has the same instant credulity that audiences have given Shakespeare's lovers for centuries. As he sings through flowing tears in "The Confrontation" when he admits to his American wife of a romance he tries unconvincingly to claim is past, this Chris sets the table for a final cry of heart-stopping anguish that cannot help but move even the most jaded audience member to at least one tear.

But the performance of the night, bar none, is that of Antonio Rodriguez III as The Engineer, the unsavory, self-centered owner of "Dreamland" in 1975 Saigon who lures in Yanks to relish his scantily clad girls offering drinks, drugs, and delights of the flesh. More than just a sleazeball out for a buck at any cost, this Engineer brings enough spry humor, excited dreams of making it to U.S. shores, and even later moments of protective hovering over Kim's young son to draw audience sympathy for an otherwise real bastard. Mr. Rodriguez's Engineer is a wonderful mixture of the seedy but seductive Emcee of Cabaret, the creepy but clownish Fagin of Oliver!, and the brash and braggadocios namesake of Barnum. He will bow in trembling fear as the Communist commandant passes, then moon him with derision upon his passing. He easily admits, "I speak Uncle Ho but think Uncle Sam," and his constant refrain is "How I love America ... I shall be America." He is every immigrant who ever wanted to make it to what is sure to be gold-studded streets where money grows green in trees, and the more he plots ploys sure to fail, the more we overlook his antics and appreciate his dream.

Other standouts in this excellent production include Aaron Grayson as the loyal friend John whose steady voice of conviction particularly shines in act two's opening "Bui Doi" as he preaches in song to a solemn group of former soldiers now in late '70s suits and ties, "We will not forget who they are, all our children ... conceived in hell and born in strife." Brian Palac equally makes a mark as the Viet Cong soldier turned Communist official Thuy, who is promised in hand to his cousin Kim and then shunned away. Mr. Palac's extremely strong voice rings forth with a sharp, piercing intensity as he pronounces to the rejecting Kim, "Saigon is doomed and so are you ... This is your curse!" As Gigi, a call girl in black lingerie, Via Mae Fernandez sings out in stellar fashion with Kim and other girls of the night "The Movie in My Mind" and later shows heart and soul as she leads the same girls in a beautiful fan dance and wedding song ("The Ceremony") as Kim and Chris are blessed in cultural style to begin their short life together.

Diverse in size and looks, a large ensemble performs with precision the rousing choreography of Nicole Helfer and sings harmonies that command attention in numbers like "The Morning of the Dragon" and "Bangkok." Unfortunately, when chorus members are called upon for brief solos, lyrics are totally lost with sound mix issues that plagued time and again most of the opening night's singers except for the key actors who tended to be heard and understood quite well. The numerous scene demands of two time periods in varying countries and continents are handled without a hitch by scenic designer Kelly James Tighe, costume designer Leandra Watson, and projection designer Steve Channon. Particular kudos must go to the incredible projections that play an immense role in director Jasen Jeffrey's production. Splashed across massive arches and panels, locations and time periods are established (actual and idealized city- and country-scapes), moods are set (iconic American cult symbols in psychedelic colors of the late '70s), and changes in regime are noted (a crumbling, stage-engulfing U.S. flag joins a disintegrating South Vietnam banner as they morph into a victorious yellow star in a field of red of the new Viet Nam). There is a show within a show in the projections alone.

Whether a ticket holder has seen Miss Saigon multiple times or never before, that same person will surely walk out of Broadway by the Bay's production with over-flowing emotions and new insights into an age-old story still being played out in our world today.

Miss Saigon continues through April 3, 2016, at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City. Tickets are available at