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"Miss Saigon" - A Powerful Message Blended in a Dynamic Performance

September 26, 2011
By Jason Pendergast
Courtesy of gayogunquit.com

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The 79th season of the Ogunquit Playhouse wraps up with what is easily their most serious play of a rather light hearted season.   Written in the 1990’s, this play tells the tale of an innocent country girl named Kim (Jennifer Paz from the Broadway version) whose family is killed in a bombing and is forced into prostitution by a Saigon bar/innkeeper known only as “the Engineer” (Raul Aranas, who is perfectly sleazy and vermin-like in his role).  On her first night as a “dancer”, she is “rented” by John (Nik Walker) for his frustrated buddy Chris (Gregg Goodbrod).   Kim’s innocence wins over John and the two have a brief but passionate affair.  When John is called away too quickly, they lose touch and she must yet again fend for herself as the war rages on.  Back home, John tries to move forward but is still plagued by leaving his love behind.

While the plot may seem cliqued by today’s standards, the writing and acting helped move this active drama along at a break neck pace. The performers were so believable and energized in their manic, panicked roles that the audience didn’t even have time to clap for a good 15-20 minutes, simply because the pace was so intense. Within moments of the show’s beginning you are thrown into the sights and sounds of a city on the verge of the destruction and the desperate and determined citizens who are trying to find some sort of escape, either by sex, drugs or the almighty helicopters that promise them their freedom. Unlike the light-hearted fare that we have seen from the Playhouse this year, “Ms. Saigon” refuses to let you turn those stressors in your mind off. You are forced to ask yourself the hard questions- “What would I do to survive?” and “Can I live with whom I have become?”

While these particular characters are fictitious, they represent a real group of people who had to ask those questions over and over again. Families were destroyed, young girls sold themselves to survive, and G.I.’s fathered children that they never met or heard from again. As our country enters the second decade of war in the Middle East, we must revisit these issues as they continue to surface. Same dynamics, different geography. Post-traumatic stress, war orphans and market place bombings are now so common that we have become desensitized to what they represent. It takes a play like “Miss Saigon” to remind us that this is real life, repeating its self all over again.

As for the actors, the Playhouse chose some strong actors for these serious roles.   Jennifer Paz is perfectly cast as the wild eyed innocent who refuses to lose her soul, no matter what situation she is in.  You just want to hug her as her world comes tumbling down.  Gregg Goodbrod as the jaded Chris plays the part well (though I found his falling for Kim a bit too quickly to fit his character.)  The dilemma that he is put into towards the end of the play is well played out and helped by the strong vocals and stage presence of Amanda Rose, who plays his conflicted wife Ellen.  Nik Walker has an amazing solo during the beginning of the second act, which I almost cried when I watched it.  Finally Raul Aranas played the creepy, leacherous pimp/innkeeper with the perfect level of micheavous sleaze.   You loved to hate him, but at the same time didn’t actually want him to go because of how much fun he was.   In one of the play’s few light-hearted moments he visualizes a colorful Americanized version of Bangkok in the song “American Dream”, which I appreciated as a temporary diversion.

The singing and choreography is up to the Playhouse’s usual high standard. However the visual that really sold me was when the helicopter takes off towards the end.  I was eager to see how they would pull this off and suffice to say, it worked well.

As far as gay-themed entertainment, most of the female cast is shown in bikinis or underwear at some point or another.  You also get to see some well buffed G.I.’s with their shirts off in the first few bar scenes.

“Miss Saigon” will be playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse through October 23rd.  For tickets and info, check out their website at ogunquitplayhouse.org  or call 1-800-982-2787.

 

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