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Flat Rock Playhouse, North Carolina’s state theatre and cultural treasure house, has mounted a powerful production of Miss Saigon that is guaranteed to move and inspire its audience. Right before the lights go down, the announcer ends the FRP traditional welcome with, “and now, sit back and relax and let us entertain you.” This show isn’t about entertainment. It’s an emotionally charged exploration of the devastation wreaked by war and those caught in its web. The show is all the more powerful because its characters are flawed, and therefore deeply human. With music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon opened in 1989 at the Theatre Royal in London. Modeled on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, the show’s setting is Saigon in the 1970s during the Vietnam War.
This production’s director, Vincent Marini, noted that this modern opera “has the power to transport its audience… in a way that is somehow both impossibly grand and surprisingly intimate.” This truism was captured beautifully on the playhouse’s small stage, where the various sets were changed so seamlessly that the flow of events remained uninterrupted by theatrical mechanics.
The experienced cast was uniformly excellent in all the ways that matter in theatre: singing prowess, acting, good ensemble work, and dancing. The principals were Eddie Egan (Chris), John Ashley Brown (John), Austin Ku (Thuy), and Hansel Tan (Asst. Commiseer). Mel Maghuyop (The Engineer), who has played this role and others in Miss Saigon many times, was captivating as the ultimate sleazy opportunist. Diana Huey as Kim, a recent winner of the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Leading Actress for her portrayal of Kim in Miss Saigon at the Signature Theatre in New York, embodied the sweet naiveté and fiery devotion of her character.
The production has wow factor in the areas of set design (Dennis Maulden), costume design (Ashli Arnold), and choreography (Jennifer Jancuska). The recreation of 1970s scenes of Vietnam — its sordid nightlife, street scenes, and glimpses of home life as the political situation changed — was breathtaking. The choreography was superb, especially the ritualized movement of the soldiers parading in the streets in Ho Chi Minh City, which is what Saigon was renamed following the fall to the Communists. The staging of the scramble to reach the rescuing helicopter prior to the fall of the city was an unforgettable dramatic and emotional highlight of the production.
The singing style of this musical draws heavily from the idioms of pop and rock, and we heard some fine singing generally when just a few characters were on stage (the music director was Michael Sebastian). The larger ensemble numbers suffered from an overuse of high decibels from both the singers and the offstage orchestra. The amplified instrumentalists occasionally covered the singers, who often were belting at the top of their lungs. If I have one reservation about the production, it is that these fortissimo dynamics distorted the sound production to the point where the words were lost and the theater space simply swamped. Ratcheted down a few notches, the same intensity of feeling could have still been conveyed in a more nuanced manner and the audience not assaulted with a wall of sound which, to me, bordered on sheer noise. This said, I came away from the show deeply moved and inspired.
Miss Saigon continues through Sunday, August 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.