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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 25, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Miss Saigon’

About a century ago, John Luther Long wrote a short

story that playwright David Belasco turned into a play that composer

Giacomo Puccini turned into an opera that has been going ever since.

Although a flop when it first appeared in opera form in 1904, "Madama Butterfly"

has proven, over the long haul, to be one of the most enduring and

best-loved operas. The story of a Japanese geisha who falls in love

with an American military officer, has his child, and commits suicide

when he returns years later with his American bride is a surefire

tearjerker.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (composers of "Les Miserables")

revived the tragic story and called it "Miss Saigon." After

a decade-long run on Broadway, the show — yes, the one with the

helicopter — has landed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, through October

20.

As you may suspect, there was not a dry eye when the curtain came

down on this ambitious musical. "Miss Saigon," one of the

greatest successes in Broadway history, has a lush and melodic score

bordering on the memorable, and an impassioned libretto bordering

occasionally on the maudlin. No matter, I was moved. Perhaps because

the Paper Mill production has been seamlessly and sensitively directed

for all its sentimental worth by Mark S. Hoebee, it affected me more

deeply than it did in either London or New York.

As part of a co-production with American Musical Theater

of San Jose and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, the Paper Mill has pulled

out all the stops. This newly-conceived production, with evocative

settings by Michael Anania, and flashy lighting by F. Mitchell Dana,

doesn’t invite any complaints from this department.

Updated to take place during events surrounding the fall of Saigon

to the communists in 1975, "Miss Saigon" involves us in the

ill-fated love affair between a young Vietnamese girl and an American

soldier are caught up in the corrupted society of a city torn apart

by war. As with "Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon" is

entirely sung through. And sung it is with power and conviction by

its stars Kevin Gray, as the Engineer, Dina Lynne Morishita and Aaron

Ramey, as the lovers Kim and Chris, and the large supporting company.

Also supporting the grand opera tradition of an "Aida," is

a pompously circumstantial processional by hordes of marching soldiers

and acrobatic dancers called upon to celebrate the third anniversary

of the re-unification of the renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Darren Lee’s

lusty and even lascivious (when called upon) choreography does much

to balance the prevailing sadness that drives the story.

In these days when frivolous musical theater has taken temporary hold,

"Miss Saigon" seems astonishingly mature in its rarely compromised

dramatic structure. The libretto (English translation from the original

French by Richard Maltby Jr.), is surprisingly stirring. Even the

rather predictable sentiments imposed on Ellen, the American wife,

seemed to resonate with more poignancy. Perhaps this was due in part

to Kate Baldwin’s convincing performance.

Gray, last seen at Paper Mill in "The King and I," is getting

another bang out of Bangkok, where part of "Miss Saigon" is

set. As the Engineer, an entrepreneurial Saigon-to-Bangkok pimp (a

role he also played on Broadway), Gray is sleazy and slippery, oozing

with decadently cultivated panache. The sheer force of his performance

makes us almost root for him to get that American visa he dreams of.

As the doomed Kim, Morishita reached out and touched me deeply with

her clearly spun soprano voice and a heart-breaking performance. The

impressive voices and compelling performances by Ramey, as the GI,

and Alan H. Green, as his Marine buddy John, helped propel this stunning

pop opera from takeoff to safe landing.

— Simon Saltzman

Miss Saigon, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343.

$30 to $67.


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