Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil
Arts Club Theatre
Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
May 19 – July 17

Give director Bill Millerd and the Arts Club credit for courage, and points for their mixed success in trying to replicate a mega-musical without really having the mega-means.

The original huge (and hugely expensive) cast, chorus and orchestra of Miss Saigon become a still-big-for-Vancouver cast of 20, including at least ten Asian actors, plus Bruce Kellett’s six musicians. And this production manages to pull off the infamous special effect of a helicopter landing on the American consulate roof during the chaotic fall of Saigon in 1975, even on the smallish Stanley stage.

But the singing needs to be good enough to meet the challenge of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s difficult dramatic score. And without all the big-budget whizz-bang of the original, it quickly becomes clear that this is a show with no great songs and a pretty conventional plot. Madame Butterfly it’s not, nor Apocalypse Now, and certainly not Schönberg and Boublil’s masterpiece, Les Miz. But there’s still a lot here to like.

The story at the centre of Puccini’s opera is updated to the last days of the Vietnam War when disillusioned American Marine Chris (Jonathan Winsby) and demure Vietnamese peasant girl Kim (Nena Lazo), who comes to Saigon from the countryside after her family has been killed, play out their doomed affair. They fall in love, he vows to take her home with him, they get separated, she has his child, he marries an American gal, and you know the rest.

Maybe it’s a guy thing but I found the romantic plot utterly unaffecting. The love songs are dull, the musical mood mostly downbeat, and though Winsby and Lazo make a cute couple, they don’t have much chemistry.

She’s a lovely actor with a crystalline voice. He can sing too, but has some trouble with the crescendos and sometime seems to be reaching for a note. Others in the cast also have this problem with the result that vocal emotion often takes the form of shouting.

Where the show really cooks is in the ultra-cynical subplot involving the Engineer (John Mann), a Vietnamese hustler who runs the Saigon strip club and is desperate to get to the USA where he can maximize his capitalist talents.

Mann is a terrific singer and always interesting to watch. With his shaved head and elastic physicality he looks like Jim Carrey’s Riddler doing the MC in Cabaret, and he knows how to sing this stuff. He anchors the evening’s biggest and best production numbers, including its one showstopper, “The American Dream.”

The female chorus of strip-club dancers is almost embarrassingly sexy, there’s a cool Asian lion-dance, and I yearned for more of Valerie Easton’s always vivid and energetic choreography. Matt Palmer as Chris’ friend and Robyn Wong as a bar-girl stand out among the strong performances across the ensemble.

Call this a Hit-and-Miss Saigon.

Jerry Wasserman


last updated: Monday, June 6, 2005 10:40 AM
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