'Saigon' Doesn't Go Far Enough in One Night

Of all the British mega-musicals that threatened to close on Broadway in recent years, the one that moved towards its closing with the least fanfare was Miss Saigon. Quietly disappearing last January on Super Bowl Sunday, the show has had its rights released, allowing regional audiences to see why it sold so many tickets for so long. However, apart from a few catchy tunes, one memorable character and a helicopter sequence too frequently mocked to deride anymore, audiences also see why the show inspired so few fans to fight its closing: Trite, simplistic lyrics, undeveloped characters and a weak narrative structure make for a startlingly dull night of theater. The current production at North Shore Music Theatre unfortunately does very little to compensate for the play’s inherent weaknesses and somehow manages to exacerbate its ineffectiveness with a clumsy and distracting physical production. The only distinguishing element of the production is the central performance of Kevin Gray, who is so good as the Engineer that, when he’s not embarrassing the show around him with his tremendous skill, he almost elevates the evening to enjoyability with the sheer strength of his portrayal.

The plot of Miss Saigon is well known. That familiarity should function as an asset, but instead the creators use it as a crutch, never bothering to flesh out details or develop characters that seem human, let alone worthy of care. Adapted from the opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon follows the plight of a young Vietnamese woman, who takes up residence with an American G.I., only to be separated two weeks later when Saigon falls. The aftermath of their brief time together, including the future of the child she bears him, form what the show calls its plot.

Audiences are expected mainly just to embrace the show’s score, which vacillates between drippy pop arias and tempo-racing recitatives—with some pseudo-Oriental music thrown in for good measure. Coming around to such material requires that the cast and crew go above and beyond the call of duty, and such an effort isn’t apparent in this production.

North Shore is a theater in the round. From the opening number, it is clear that the production struggles to deal with the problems of such a venue. While one character has a particularly personal moment center stage, her performance is obscured for much of the audience by actors placed all around the edge of the stage who don’t need to be there—and could certainly be lower and out of the line of sight. In the next scene, the bed has a high back, which cuts off the visibility of the characters on stage for many. Similar problems persist throughout the performance.

However, even more troubling are the screens suspended throughout the theater, displaying slides to accompany the action on stage. The images on the screens do not serve a constant purpose—sometimes they provide a physical background and at other times they comment on the scene’s meaning. The only consistent aspect of the slides is that they never advance the production; the images are bizarrely stylized, artistically lacking and more distracting than anything else. At one point, a heavily pixilated fade is repeatedly used that had me staring at a screen and recalling the effects on my first Apple IIe computer, rather than noticing the actors in the scene. The worst use of the screen, though, is reserved for the musical’s show-stopping eleventh hour number, “The American Dream.” As the Engineer sings of that prized notion, a $100 bill appears behind him—an image that is obvious but not too imposing. However, as the song continues, coins gradually fade into the picture, covering Ben Franklin with the richness of quarters. The effect is laughable.

Unfortunately, ill-advised screen usage and poor sightlines are not all that plague this production. Awkward staging also sinks a number of scenes, including all those in which guns figured prominently. Every scene that features a character holding a gun and threatening another is unbelievable and loses its dramatic build, both because of the way the actors hold their weapons and the way they react to the situations. And among the more curiously flawed scenes is the second act opener, “Bui Doi,” which occasionally feels like a Sally Struthers commercial and at other times like a revival meeting. The staging is unclear, the setting unknown and entire scene disconcerting for the wrong reasons (and the faces of abandoned children broadcast on the screens don’t help any).

Most of the principals fare better than the physical production. However, though they are generally adequate, few transcend the limiting material. Brian Noonan’s Chris, the American soldier, seems lost on stage most of the time. And while the character is weak (apart from being weakly sketched), there needs to be enough substance to him that two strong women would fall so deeply in love with him. Noonan’s performance is also hampered by the fact that his voice, while a powerful instrument, appears largely untrained. His forced vibrato and difficulty with held notes detract from what should be lovely singing.

As Kim, his lover, Rona Figueroa enjoys more success. Her voice is clear and her line-readings are appropriate for the character. Nevertheless, Figueroa’s performance is so full of wide-eyed innocence, especially late in the play, that Kim appears less sympathetic than foolish. Skie Ocasio, as Thuy, the husband Kim’s parents arranged for her prior to their deaths, offers a performance unrivaled among the supporting cast. Ocasio shines with a powerful presence and robust singing voice. Though he must appear in a painfully bad second act flashback, he handles even that sequence with skill.

The true treat of the night, though, remains Gray’s Engineer. From the first moment he appears on stage, he is in absolute command. Gray deftly uses his steely and expressive baritone to give life to a character who is desire incarnate. Strutting, preening, cajoling, even begging, he radiates charisma, as well as a sad sort of desperation that the character is unaware he possesses. A lesser actor might be inclined to soften the character and play him as a pimp with a heart of gold. Gray, though, avoids all of the character’s traps, forging ahead with a portrayal that embraces greed in such a visceral sense that one cannot help but embrace him and eagerly follow wherever he leads.

It’s interesting to note that the Engineer is the only character in the show with depth. Though he is meant to represent a cultural phenomenon, he manages in his unrepentant lustfulness to emerge as truly human and sympathetic. Consequently, in his depth and in his function of occasionally delivering commentary, he doesn’t seem to fit in the show. It is also noteworthy, then, that he is the only character that the show’s authors conjured without relying on the source material. Their achievement with this creation leaves one to ponder how successful they might have been if, freed from Butterfly, they had pursued the character of the Engineer or worked to devise other new characters. Such reflections, though tantalizing, do nothing to alter or elevate the present work that is on exhibition at North Shore Music Theatre. And yet, in spite of all its numerous shortcomings, this production is worth seeing, if only for Gray’s indelibly mesmerizing turn.

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