“Haunted”— in a word, that is how the production of Miss Saigon, directed by Derek Critzer and Russell Penney and now playing at the James Lee Community Center and produced by Traveling Spotlight Productions in Falls Church, left me feeling.
I have to be honest: I’ve always been a little ambivalent about this musical and I had apprehensions about this production. Sure, the music is an alchemical mixture of flavors modern and classical, pop and traditional, operatic chorus and jazz chorus line that is characteristic of a Schoenberg/Boublil production, and which has given the duo such success among audiences across generational lines. And sure, the story line has enough love, tragedy, flesh, and comedy to keep all those same audiences awake, regardless of their taste preferences. And sure, the production itself has the epic quality, right down to a signature “high tech” set piece, that one also can expect of Schoenberg and Boublil.
But the Vietnam War? Really? That’s supposed to be entertainment, and as a musical? I had my doubts, but I also knew I had to see it.
I was pleasantly stunned by the way directors Critzer and Russell tastefully handled the material.
Knowing that this is a more recent script that has set a high standard and is more synonymous with Broadway and Times Square than with community centers, I was also morbidly curious. How would they pull it off?
In a nutshell, Miss Saigon is your modern version of Madame Butterfly; a story, unavoidably tragic, about a young girl from the east falling in love with a soldier from the west, and the ill-fated nature of their meeting. It is hard not to give much away as far as plot, but in terms of what the play has to say, one of the things that really stands out is the purity of Kim (Kim Frias), the young girl who is the only one in the story, it seems, capable of having any courage or honor. What is ultimately so powerful about this story, however, is that it is not at all the larger-than-life story one would expect from a musical of Miss Saigon’s reputation; indeed, it is all too real, too close to the truth, too true to be fiction.
I have to give some major props to this production on several counts, as well as mention a few mostly minor disappointments. On the plus side-and it is a big plus-I was pleasantly stunned by the way directors Critzer and Russell tastefully handled the material. Given the paradox—as I pointed out above—between the fact that the show is both commercial spectacle and hard, raw truth, they capture both the frankness and beauty of the piece, in places elevating the piece to the status of a “memorial”.
The two leads, Kim Frias and Michael Peres as Chris, made a great pair, both musically and theatrically. I found Frias to be an excellent Kim; she is a fantastic singer in a role that would be very popular, and yet she is so believably innocent, vulnerable and simple. I appreciated her portrayal of Kim immensely. Michael Perez was also a beautiful, tragic and infuriatingly irresponsible Chris; I might not love his character, but I loved his voice. What a tenor!
Several supporting characters also stood out. Kyna Hollis, who plays the brief supporting role of Gigi, is wonderfully compelling and captures the story of all young women who do what they must do to survive during times of war, especially during “The Movie in My Mind” scene. And thank God for Christopher Furry, who, in his role as the Engineer, provides some much-needed comic relief throughout this tearjerker. Furry is not only a talented vocalist, but is delightfully one-dimensional in his role as the almost-villain, to the point of being ironically likeable in a story about so many people in need of redeemable qualities. J. I. Canizares also gives a chilling performance as Thuy, yet another complex character which I greatly enjoyed.
The ensemble as a whole was strong and very committed, even if some fell a bit short. Rita Gigliotti is a strong vocalist, but I felt there was an absence of chemistry between her Ellen and Chris and that her emotions could have been drawn from a deeper well, which is a shame considering how important her point-of-view is to the story. William Moore, who plays John, seemed to struggle with the vocal demands of his part, but I have to say this: that didn’t stop me from bursting into tears during his and the men’s rendition of “Bui Doi,” which I wish I could get out of my head.; I wish I could have heard some of them better, but it seemed there were some issues with the sound during the show.
As for the set design—wow! I admit to being impressed by the nearly 3D appearance of a large digital helicopter, as well as by the use of heartbreaking pictures of mixed Vietnamese children being left behind by soldiers. In fact, everything in the set design by Critzer and David and Sheila Jennelle added to the dark, passionate, raw feeling of the overall show, which left me emotionally wiped; as I said at the beginning, I still feel haunted by it now.
Bring the tissues-lots of ‘em-but do go see Miss Saigon. It is a story that deserves an audience as many times as it can be told, and it is clear that this company, the musicians and the production team, have put their heart and soul into it, at every moment. Well done.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Miss Saigon, produced by Traveling Spotlight Productions, plays July 13 – 15, at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2:00 p.m. Sunday at the James Lee Community Center, 2855 Annandale Rd #101, in Falls Church, Virginia. To order tickets, please visit online.