September 28, 2011
By Joe Sheehan
Courtesy of seacoastonline.com
Unlike the Boston Red Sox, the Ogunquit Playhouse closes its season in championship style. "Miss Saigon" is a Vietnam-era version of "Madame Butterfly," Puccini's century old opera of a love affair between a U.S. Naval Officer and a Japanese girl. Only this time we have an American Marine and a Vietnamese bar girl.In both cases the military man returns home ultimately to a wife while the lady waits, waits and waits for his return. In "Madame," the naval man does return but he brings his wife. In our current production, the bar girl, with the help of a scheming schlemiel, gets as far as Bangkok where she faces the man she wed in a self-styled Buddhist ceremony.
About that schlemiel — no performer in recent memory of Playhouse productions has captured an audience in the palm of his hand and put it safely in the pocket of one of his gaudy jackets. The Engineer, as played magnificently by Raul Aranas, is a self-admitted pimp, procurer, promoter, and pornographer. But with the talent and stagecraft of Aranas, he becomes a lovable louse who electrifies the stage every time he steps on it.
Miss Saigon (the incomparably sweet Jennifer Paz) is, at the outset, an innocent young thing who has come to Saigon to earn money in order to help her family up north. She can only find work at the Engineer's bar, Dreamland, where the Engineer shrewdly runs a rigged contest among his bevy of bar hustlers so that he can charge top dollar for the new unblemished arrival.
A Marine sergeant wins the raffle. He spends the night with her and falls in love. (An aside here: any man who wears a 45 sidearm to bed has major self-confidence problems.) At any rate, he is sufficiently smitten to agree to a Buddhist wedding although it's obvious he has no idea what he's doing.
The action moves to three years later and Ho Chi Minh has overrun Vietnam and Saigon, but the marine (a powerfully voiced Gregg Goodbrod) has gone back to America and married Ellen (Amanda Rose, another superb voice in a difficult role).
In a development that, most assuredly, played out hundreds and hundreds of times in Far Eastern conflicts, military personnel leave behind broken-hearted women and, most unfortunately, children who soon become orphans. Miss Saigon has a son for whom she lives her life while hoping the marine will return to her and him.
It takes another brilliant performer and a booming baritone, Nik Walker, in the role of a U.S. Embassy official to define the moral casualties of Nam in the opening number of the second act. He tells the Engineer the only way he can get to America is by being a relative of a U.S. citizen and Miss Saigon's son is an American citizen because of his father in the U.S.
This news segues into one of the most memorable bits ever performed on the Playhouse stage: The Engineer's version of "The American Dream." Aranas displays his consummate skill in this show-stopper.
Director Paul Dobie masterfully arranges the Vietnamese assault on the embassy with some very artful staging, using both sides of a wire fence to display the confusion, chaos and calamity in those last hours of the American occupation. Even the arrival of the helicopter is spectacularly staged.
Brad Kenney, the playhouse's executive artistic director, can look back on a run of critical hits. He has served the Grand Dame of Southern Maine's summer theater with an artistic talent that probably has its founder, John Lane, smiling with satisfaction.
Performances of "Miss Saigon" at the Ogunquit Playhouse run Tuesday through Sunday through Oct. 23. Ticket prices range from $39 to $76.50. For showtimes and theater information, visitwww.ogunquitplayhouse.org or call the box office at 646-5511.