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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Those who are too young to have seen the original probably heard about its most famous prop, the helicopter. And its image emblazoned on the cover of the current production's Playbill isn't an empty teaser. The helicopter may not be completely the real thing but with the help of projections, lighting and strong fans, it's still pretty amazing.
What's more, this Miss Saigon's designers, Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, have added several new mouth agape props to ratchet up the technical spectacle that's always been the big appeal of this show: a giant sculptural images of Ho Chi Minn backs a Viet Cong troop's military parade. . .and a similarly sized Statue of Liberty image is fronted by an all girls dance number that parallels the Viet Cong parade's military precision.
The book, a pop-operatic version of Puccini's famous Madame Butterfly, is intact. It revolves around the love affair between an American military man abroad and a native girl that ends unhappily — leaving her poor, pregnant and hoping that he will come back for her.
Miss Saigon transposed the story to the end of the misconceived Vietnam conflict. The fall of Saigon makes for a chaotic situation. The Americans look for relief from disillusion at a dive ironically named Dreamland that's run by an opportunistic pimp a.k.a. The Engineer. For him and the poor Vietnamese bar girl dancer-prostitutes America looms as a desperately yearned for haven. A scene showing the long line of immigrants desperately heading out of Saigon at the end of the first act is all too reminiscent of more desperate victims of long, useless wars we see on our TV sets daily.
There's plenty of opportunity for melodrama and big ballads in the mostly sung-through love story that drives the plot. The Miss Saigon change in setting and time are actually something of an improvement on the dated and melodramatic Madame Butterfly story. However, the show's continued big following is mostly due to the spectacle factor. Though the music is wonderfully schmaltzy and easy on the ears, it doesn't include an ear-clinging hummer to walk away with as is the case with Les Miz.
Using that spectacle factor and the quality of the singing now on stage as a baseline to judge how Miss Saigon holds up, the answer is "Yes." This is the biggest, most spectacle rich show in town. With High School Musical discovery Eva Noblezada as Kim the singing is not just good but superb. Besides going from strength to strength with each song, Ms. Noblezada sings with enough feeling to touch even the most cynical members of the audience. Thus, this Miss Saigon affords that special pleasure of seeing a really fresh new talent.
To give my "yes it holds up" a further boost, Noblezada is blessed to have the good-looking and vocally strong Alistair Brammer as her beloved Chris. Nicholas Christopher is also impressive as Chris's fellow Marine John; and so is Thuy, the man designated as Kim's husband when she was 13, though his becoming a powerful officer in Ho Chi Min's new order.
Even those clinging to fond memories of Pryce's Engineer, will find Philippine born and raised Jon Jon Briones more than satisfying. He brings the sly, sardonic edge of the Emcee in Kander and Ebb's Cabaret to this man who thrives in the midst of the Vietnam War and, when Saigon falls, escapes and retools himself yet again. He's terrific throughout and taps into the satire of "If You Want to Die in Bed" and the penultimate "American Dream" number. That razzle dazzle number adds a real convertible car to the show's jaw dropping props. An apt and undoubtedly recent script addition about making it great again brought a big burst of laughter and applause.
With a cast of 45, this review would turn into a book if I went into a lot more details. Suffice it to say "Bravo" to the ensemble members on both the American and Vietnamese side. In the rather minor role of Chris's American wife Ellen, Katie Rose Clarke does get a nifty introduction in "Room 317" and a bran-new solo, "Maybe." Tam, Kim's three year-old son love child, is pretty much a human prop whose only task is to look adorable — which Jace Chan, one of the four alternating Tams I saw certainly is.
The musical staging and choreography by Bob Avian (with additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt) and the Totie Driver-Matt Kinley design certainly bring out the full flavor of the flow of panoramic scenes depicting the vulgarity and chaos of the war and aftermath. Their work is splendidly supported by Andreane Neofitou 's characterizing costumes and Bruno Poet's true to his surname's lighting.
My seat close to the orchestra pit had me a bit concerned about having my ears assaulted the over-amplification common to so many musical. But my worries were unfounded. So bravo again to sound designer Mick Potter and orchestrator William David Brohn.
Though as already evident in Miss Saigon's second act, Vietnam was transformed from war zone to tourist destination. Current events make this new production as sadly timely as it is entertaining.
Note: Since the role of Kim is so vocally demandng Eva Noblezada will not doing matinees.
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Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr, adapted from original French lyrics by Alain Boublil, with additional lyrics by Michael Mahler.
Directed by Laurence Connor
Principals in a cast of 45: Alistair Brammer (Chris), Jon Jon Briones (The Engineer), Eva Noblezada (Kim), Katie Rosie Clarke (Ellen), Nicholas Christopher (John), Devin Ilaw (Thuy) Rachelle Ann Go (Gigi), Lianah Sta.Ana (Kim at certain performances)
Musical Staging by Bob Avian and additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt.
Production design is by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley
Design Concept by Adrian Vaux
Costume design by Andreane Neofitou
Lighting design by Bruno Poet
Sound design by Mick Potter
Projections by Luke Halls
Orchestrations by William David Brohn
Musical supervision by Stephen Brooker
Musical direction by James Moore
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission.
Broadway Theater 1681 Broadway<
From 3/01/17; opening 3/23/17; closing 1/14/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/21/17 press preview
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