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Ogunquit's 'Miss Saigon' Pulses with Urgency of Life and Death

October 4, 2011
By Jan Nargi
Courtesy of Broadway World.com

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The long-running, beautifully crafted, sung-through Broadway pop opera based on Puccini's tragic Madame ButterflyMiss Saigon focuses on the ravages of the Vietnam War as it turns innocent civilians into refugees in their own land. When Chris (Gregg Goodbrod), a good-hearted American soldier, meets and falls in love with Kim (Jennifer Paz), a teenaged Vietnamese orphan who reluctantly turns to prostitution for survival, their hasty "marriage" is brutally shattered when the fall of Saigon forces the immediate evacuation of all GIs. Separated by the crush of refugees and war brides trying to escape with their American "saviors," Chris and Kim's lives are changed forever. He returns home and eventually marries the supportive Ellen (Amanda Rose). She gives birth and spends the next three years trying to find him and reunite. When the conniving Engineer (Raul Aranas) maneuvers through "the system" and gets word of Chris's son to him through his old war buddy John (Nik Walker), now an embassy attaché, the impossible love triangle implodes. Clearly, there are no winners - either political or personal - in this irreconcilable war.

As the delicate Kim, Paz is shatteringly gentle of spirit yet blisteringly fierce when it comes to defending her child Tam (Yamilah Saravong, Sarah Deherrera, Zak Burgess alternating in the role) from the threats of her ex-lover Thuy (Austin Ku). Her soft romantic glow, combined with an unwavering determination to make life better for her son, imbues her with a heartbreaking angelic beauty that knocks the wind right out of the audience in her final moments. Her singing, which ranges from innocent ("Unicorn") to passionate ("Last Night of the World," "Sun and Moon," "I Still Believe") is quietly potent and sweetly penetrating.

Goodbrod is a sympathetic yet ultimately doomed Chris, both a symbol and a victim of his own country's superiority complex and misguided foreign policies. While in Vietnam he rushes to Kim's aide, protecting her and offering her hope for a future in America. Once they are separated and he establishes a new life, what he ultimately brings her is unfulfilled promises and broken dreams. In his early tormented solo "Why God, Why?" he mines every ounce of the aching conflict that drives him to be with Kim despite his desperate need to forget everything about Vietnam once he returns home. This powerful soliloquy turns out to be sadly prophetic; Chris later shows that he is more a good solider than a good person ("Ellen and Chris").

ne of the most emotionally gripping moments comes at the top of Act II when the African American soldier-turned-humanitarian John (Walker) makes an impassioned plea that we take responsibility for all the mixed race children left behind ("Bui-Doi") by American GIs. While making a multi-media slide and video presentation that features the faces of dozens of abandoned young wide-eyed innocents, Walker shakes the rafters with Gospel-inspired protestations. In this stunning sequence, Walker brings the untold numbers of personal tragedies of the Vietnam War right into the here and now. He could just as easily be talking about children in Iraq and Afghanistan today. His conviction is positively overwhelming.

Rounding out Miss Saigon's fine and fully committed featured cast are Amanda Rose as Ellen, Ya Han Chang as Gigi, and Austin Ku as Thuy, the sadistic military leader betrothed to Kim since childhood. Rose delivers a plaintive and powerful "Now That I've Seen Her" as she determines to do whatever she must to keep her husband from returning to Kim. Chang turns "The Movie in My Mind" into a hypnotic surreal escape from the sordid brothel life she must endure in order to stay safe from an even worse fate on the streets of war-torn Saigon. Ku infuses his rejected lover with the cold-blooded power that has made his Thuy a fast-rising and dangerous army officer. Even as a ghost in "Kim's Nightmare (Part 1)" he sings with frightening authority.

It is Aranas' alternately cynical and opportunistic Eurasian Engineer, however, that holds an insistent and unblinking mirror up to American hypocrisy throughout Miss Saigon. Pimp, procurer, pusher, and street entrepreneur, he simultaneously derides the evils of capitalism all the while working non-stop to earn his piece of the pie. Aranas gives a delicious performance, slithering across the stage with false bravado one minute and acquiescing to the tyrannical Vietnamese regime the next, hiding his contempt beneath an inscrutable cooperation that serves his own survival first, last, and always. Yet Aranas also hints at a compassionate core long buried beneath the protective armor he developed out of necessity. Half French, half Asian, he is an outcast of two worlds, profiteering from the clash of cultures that has created a dark underbelly ripe for the picking. Sure, he leaps at the chance to come to America by latching onto Kim and her son. But there is also the sense that he truly cares for them. Even for this jaded Engineer, not all hope is lost.

Aranas infuses his show-stopping climactic number, "The American Dream," with a truly remarkable mix of burnt optimism and biting humor. There is no Cadillac convertible for him to hump as there was for Tony Award winner Jonathan Pryce in the original 1991 Broadway production. But there is Aranas' splendidly scathing vaudeville sarcasm that holds contempt for both America's - and his own - all-consuming greed. There is also Dobie and the design team's red, white and blue costumes, shimmering blue metallic backdrop studded with rows of blazing white bulbs, and hot red stage lighting that together suggest an American flag dripping with decadence and corrupted by Las Vegas style glitz. The impact is pointed without being anti-American. Dobie and company have managed to show both sides of the same capitalistic coin.

Dobie has also directed Miss Saigon at a crisp pace, flowing scenes seamlessly from seedy bars to makeshift military encampments and moving back and forth in time with crystal clarity from 1975 Saigon to 1978 America. He juxtaposes scenes of quiet romanticism against heart-pounding drama to great effect. Choreographer Robert Tatad is equally skilled at raising the audience's pulse through dynamic dance numbers. "The Heat Is on in Saigon" is raw and sexual while "The Morning of the Dragon," in which the Vietnamese army marches in conquest at the fall of Saigon and the rise of Ho Chi Minh City, is particularly chilling in its precision and intensity.

Of course, there is also the actual helicopter that lands and takes off again during the climactic evacuation that rips Kim and Chris apart - although truth be told, it really isn't necessary. Richard Latta's blinding flashing lights, Jeremy Oleksa's theater-shaking rumble of chopper blades, and music director Ken Clifton's ear-pounding percussion create enough realism and urgency that the appearance of a life-size prop copter is almost superfluous.

This superlative Ogunquit revival of Miss Saigon proves that Boublil and Schönberg's masterful pop opera is still a hard-hitting musical drama that has lost none of its anti-war punch since its controversial Broadway debut just weeks after the US's first invasion of Iraq (Operation Desert Storm). This is as vivid as any production you'll ever see, throbbing with passion and life-or-death urgency. The entire cast acts like it's the last night of the world. See it before it's the last night of its run.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE: Jennifer Paz as Kim, Gregg Goodbrod as Chris; Jennifer Paz and Gregg Goodbrod; Nik Walker as John with Ensemble; Jennifer Paz and Austin Ku as Thuy; Raul Aranas as the Engineer and Ensemble; the Ensemble in "The Morning of the Dragon"

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