When Miss Saigon premiered two decades ago, the word most often used to describe it was ‘epic'. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and featuring a cast led by Jonathan Pryce and Lea Solonga, Miss Saigon became one of the longest running shows in the West End and on Broadway as well as several hugely successful tours which lasted until several years ago. Now with regional companies attempting to mount this Cameron Mackintosh favorite, leave it to Kyle DeSantis and Drury Lane to but their own stamp on it and inject something into Miss Saigon more powerful then spectacle. Drury Lane has made the show relevant for a whole new generation.
This latest, and perhaps greatest production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's Vietnam tale based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly, is directed by Rachel Rockwell, who through precise and exceedingly tight blocking gives the characters a chance to connect with the audience, something that was quite lacking in the Hynter original. As Rockwell has exceedingly proved (as well as Marriott Lincolnshire several years ago) no helicopter is needed and no over the top stage effects are necessary to convey the love story of Chris and Kim to the masses. In fact, I dare say the opposite is true. Miss Saigon works much better on this more intimate scale, where the music and emotional gravitas of the story is put directly in the lap of audience.
Not leaving anything to chance, Rockwell has assembled some Saigon veterans, including Jeff Award winner Joseph Foronda who is simply the best Engineer to don the stage and Melinda Chua Smith, who has starred as Kim on Broadway, in Germany and on numerous U.S. tours of the show. Their experience and knowledge of their respective characters, as well as a few years maturity as actors give this Saigon its legs. Add to the mix Kevin Vortmann who is the most vulnerable Chris in recent memory, John Sanders as his best friend and Melissa Dye (hands down one of the best Christine's in Phantom) as a heart wrenched Ellen and this is a modern day opera on scale with its Puccini predecessor.
There is not a weak moment to be found in this production. Roberta Duchak's musical direction of this difficult score is exceptional as well as the augmented orchestra which is rivals any pit in the city. Stacy Flaster has choreographed the show with great deference to Rockwell's direction. For sung through shows such as this, this symmetry between director and chirography can make or break a show, and here both enhance each other. Kevin Depinet scenic design along with Jesse Klug's amazing lighting could be transferred to any Broadway house with the same effect. Sound designer Ray Nardelli, has also done fine work balancing the augmented orchestra with the vocals.
Just as in the original opera, Miss Saigon is nothing without its arias and the lush score is brimming with them memorable numbers including the foreshadowing ‘Movie In My Mind' Chris and Kim's poetic ‘Sun & Moon' and ‘Last Night Of The World', Kim and Ellen's lovely duet ‘I Still Believe'; John's haunting ‘Bui Doi' which reflects on the children of war; and Ellen's realization that her life will never be the same in ‘Now That I've Seen Her'. Boublil and Schonberg's score, though not as enveloping as their prior Les Miserables, is certainly worth of the accolades it has received.
For those who have seen Miss Saigon, leave all preconceptions behind and you will marvel at the beauty of this story. For those who are seeing it for the first time, you will know the true power of musical theatre at its finest.
Miss Saigon plays through March 8, 2009 at Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. For more information, including tickets and show times, visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com or call the box office at (630) 530-0111. Tickets can also be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com or (312) 559-1212
Photo 1: Joseph Foronda (Engineer) with the ensemble
Photo 2: Melinda Chua Smith (Kim) and Kevin Vortmann (Chris)
Photo Credit: Johnny Knight