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Seattle Review: Miss Saigon at Fifth Avenue

As I'm new in Seattle, I don't know much of the work of David Bennett, who seems to have worked quite a bit regionally, but if his work is even close to the job he's done with Fifth Avenue's current production of Miss Saigon, I would have to say he's one of the most gifted directors in Seattle.

The story, of course, is taken from Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, and centers around Kim, an innocent prostitute, who falls in love with an American G.I. (Chris) during the Vietnam War. After the war, Chris makes it back home where he eventually marries while Kim is still in Saigon with their son, which Chris is unaware of. Throughout the second act, Kim makes attempts to reunite with her long lost love with the help of her former boss (The Engineer).

Bennett has taken a musical so blatantly identified with it's spectacle (specifically helicoptors and cadillacs), and has focused the show on the love story set to a backdrop of war and hardship. While the production still has a fine set design (by Michael Anania) that is grand in it's own right, the emphasis is less on spectacle and more on plot, which serves the production well, but the show not so well. With the new production values, the holes in the show are much more evident, and the music comes off repetetive and sometimes boring. A score with high notes is exciting at times, but an entire show of high notes just seems like actors are screaming at you after a while. (though not to take anything away from Ian Eisendrath, who has done a bangup job with the musical direction and has even added some more authentic Asian instruments into the mix)

Highlights of the show include Chris' soaring ballad, "Why God, Why?," the maniacal dream sequence utilizing a somewhat downsized, though not less effective, helicoptor, the dramatic confrontation of Kim and her long-ago husband-to-be, Thuy, in "You Will Not Touch Him," and The Engineer's thrilling 11 o'clock number, "The American Dream," complete with an entire stage full of Marilyn Monroes and Elvis impersonators.

Besides the new staging, Bennett has also compiled a top-notch cast that work very well together. Holding down the fort as Kim is Emy Baysic, who has played the role on Broadway and regionally. Her voice is not as strong as most Kim's I've seen, but her acting is well above most. Her singing is fine, but just not the powerhouse vocals I've seen from some. I've seen the show five times prior to this production, including the original Broadway cast, and Baysic has surpassed most other Kims with her acting. Again, while it's nice to hear someone belt, it doesn't mean anything if there's no acting to back it up. This is where Baysic triumphs. Her voice works well with her acting abilities, and, at times, you don't notice that the vocals aren't as strong.

Also having played the role on Broadway, Raul Aranas posses a sly arrogance and a fabulous voice. I saw Aranas in the first national tour of Miss Saigon, and he's just as good now, years later. His take on the role is surprisingly organic and internal, much different than many of the other Engineers, which is very welcomed. His gives an effortless performance. The other standout performance of the evening was the brilliant casting of Louis Hobson as Chris. Not your typical leading man, Hobson does posses dashing good looks, but in a much more distinct and non-typical way. His voice is also not your typical leading man sound, either, but Bennett has done well in casting him. He gives the best performance of Chris I've seen, and I actually care for him at the end, when in most cases directors have a pretty boy with a typical pop opera voice that can't playing the role. Hobson makes the character his own with an incredibly emotional and honest portrayal. And his unique voice has found the perfect home in this music.

Kingsley Leggs, a veteran of seven separate Miss Saigons, posses an almost overwhelming voice at times and does the job expected of someone as experienced as he. Candice Donehoo, as Ellen, posses a fine voice, but not much in the acting department. Brandon O'Neill plays the sinister Thuy, and does so with conviction and a stellar voice, and Kari Lee Cartwright does well in the thankless role of Gigi.

A new take on an identifiable musical can be hard to come by, and it's even harder to find one as realized as this Miss Saigon. Bennett's production is better than the original in many ways, and is a must see for any musical theatre fan. Even skeptics and theatre snobs can appreciate this nearly flawless rendition of the classic musical.

-Ethan John Thompson

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From This Author Ethan John Thompson

Ethan John Thompson has been working professionally in the theatre for almost 20 years. He has worked as a director, actor, stage manager and producer (read more...)