By John Farrell
Miss Saigon is a re-telling of the story of Madama Butterfly, set in the apocalyptic world of the end of the United States military occupation of Saigon, known as much for its special effects (at one point a helicopter lands on stage) and the controversy it originally caused (the lead was not played by a Vietnamese) as for its score and story.
The original controversy swirled around Lea Salonga, a Filipino actress who won a Tony for her performance, and several other awards, but was not the Vietnamese teenager that the role called for. After ten years in London and as many in New York the controversy was overcome by the shows sheer success, a success that hasn’t yet abated.
Miss Saigon gets a brilliant, showy production at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center, and the central character this time around, Lee, is being played by Jacqueline Nguyen, an actual refugee from Vietnam. That’s only part of the story of this brilliantly staged, hard-hitting production, which, if not quite the Broadway version, comes pretty close, at least in stage effects and production values.
Claude-Michel provides the score for this musical, and it isn’t even close to Puccini: lots of Broadway belting is involved, and the lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boubil are less than thrilling, with very predictable rhymes and very little cleverness involved. (Maybe that’s because they were translated from the original French.) Despite that, the story is emotionally effective and tragic: an American GI finds and falls in love with a 17-year old bar girl, but has to leave her when the U.S. pulls out of Vietnam at the end of the war. She bears his son, but by the time he finds out she’s alive, he is married to an American, and Lee, distraught, commits suicide.
All this takes place against the background of Vietnamese bars and Bangkok brothels, and while Lee is virginal, and her lover, Chris, (Kevin Odekrik) disdains the licentiousness of the end-of-everything atmosphere that pervades Saigon at the end of the war, pretty much everyone else is a part of the horrible story of the Vietnam war and its aftermath. The engineer, played by Joseph Anthony Foronda, sells women, sells anything: he just wants an American visa. He’s there when Saigon falls and, after three years of “re-education” he still wants to go to America.
That this story can be such a hit in Orange County says a lot about how the area has changed. The sexual antics of the bar girls at the beginning of the piece, doing everything but the act itself in mini-bikinis, might have been controversial 25 years ago. Now it’s not even noticed, except for pleasure. A generation and more after the first Vietnamese refugees flooded into Orange County, they are not only accepted but a head taller than their families. Every bar girl was taller by a head than Vietnamese women were back then, and Aidan Park, who plays Thuy, the North Vietnamese officer who was bound to Lee by her father, must be over six feet tall.
Nguyen is delicate and pure as Lee, and despite the years that have rolled over her head by the play’s end, it is still hard to imagine the horrors she has experienced. Odekrik plays Chris with a very open, unaffected air, only emotional when he gets on the last copter out of Saigon. Foronda is the center of the story: conniving, sleazy, convincing, and he gets the work’s best number, “The American Dream,” a Hollywood-style production number that features the entire ensemble and a genuine pink Cadillac on stage.
But you don’t see Miss Saigon for its music or story. You see it for the production. And this one, directed by Brian Kite with a design team that includes scenic designer Dustin J. Cardwell and costumes by Mela Hoyt-Heydon, is spectacular. The famous helicopter in the second act isn’t quite a full-sized rotor-spinning model, but it is real enough, and the rapid scene changes (and the huge gold statue of Ho Chi Minh – who would have expected it behind the Orange curtain) are spectacles.
Audiences love this show, are moved by the story, by the grandeur and dirt of it. If you want to see what it is all about, this is one to see.
Tickets are $35-$50. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at 8 p.m. Friday, April 20, 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 22, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 6.
Details: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6301, www.lamiradatheatre.com
Venue: La Mirada Performing Arts Center
Location: 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada