Hobby Center through Feb. 21.
By HOLLY BERETTO
Anyone who missed the turntable in TUTS’ most recent production of Les Miserables will delight at the triumphant scene-stealing helicopter in the company’s re-mounting of Miss Saigon, a show that, once it settles into itself deep into the second act, proves to be a stunning fait accompli for the hometown musical producer. The late-eighties rock-opera retelling of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly by the creative team behind Les Miserables has always been a piece long on melodrama and short on realism, and TUTS’ cast manages to deliver mightily on the former and even somewhat well on the latter–no small feat, given that the characters in Miss Saigon can easily veer into stereotype.
Amid the chaos of Saigon in 1975, with Americans rapidly pulling out of the city in advance of the North Vietnamese storming the gates, American GI Chris falls in love with 17-year-old bar girl Kim. Their heated affair sets in motion an unstoppable force, sweeping across Vietnam, Bangkok, Atlanta and destiny.
Holding the show together is the dynamic Melinda Chua, whose tenacious portrayal of Kim is both vivid and steeped in pathos. She veers from trepidation to joy to despair to hope across these two-and-a-half hours, dragging us along for the ride. She is lovely in singing the duet “Sun and Moon” with her beloved, and simply fierce in her confrontation with her cousin on “You Will Not Touch Him.” Eric Kunze’s Chris has a great disaffected look, and a strong, gorgeous voice, but he spends a great deal of the show spewing angst in a manner that indicates either over-acting or over-directing.
The Fagin-esque Engineer, played by Joseph Anthony Foronda, is mostly delightful. He spends the first half of the show snarling out his lines and songs, with little of the wry, ironic look at his lot that made the role’s originator, Jonathan Pryce, such a delight. It’s a shame to sit through his snarkiness for three-quarters of the show, before he opens up and just owns every inch of the stage in his act two showstopper, “The American Dream,” delivered with the sheer joy of a much-loved fantasy, mixed with his own sardonic take life.
As Chris’ wife Ellen, Jessica Rush takes too many cues from American Idol, serving up both “I Still Believe” and “Now That I’ve Seen Her” (which, full disclosure, I have always thought was a horrible rewrite on the original “It’s Her or Me,” especially the last stanza) with belting bravado and overdone handwringing, and very little emotion and love to back it up. Both Angelica-Lee Aspiras and Philip Michael Baskerville, as bargirl Gigi and Chris’ GI pal John, have great singing and stage presence, and Aspiras knocks it out of the park with “The Movie in My Mind.”
Directed as though the cast were on a treadmill, and told to grab everyone in the Hobby Center by the hand and whisk them along, director Bruce Lumpkin does the show a disservice. I am sure the intent was to convey the insanity of war and the grasping at any small thing to make the horror less real. But Miss Saigon has stunning moments of introspection, and great, deep pondering themes. This production is so busy sweeping everyone up in the rush and crush of war, it’s difficult to see them.
And as for the above-mentioned scene-stealing helicopter, it plays a pivotal role in an Act Two flashback at the U.S. Embassy that emphasizes the madness of the Vietnam War. In a scene like that, Lumpkin’s rapid-fire directing and the cast’s full-panic delivery is spot-on.
Photo: (above) The famous Helicopter scene, and (below) the wedding of Chris and Kim, in TUTS’ production of Miss Saigon.