EPAC scores a solid success with ‘Miss Saigon’

Reviewed by George Basler

Miss Saigon is a story of love and sacrifice set amidst one of the ugliest and most misbegotten wars in American history.

It’s a credit to the Endicott Performing Arts Center Repertory Company that both the sacrifice and ugliness come through clearly in a production that opened this past weekend (March 7-9) at the Endicott theater.

The show, which continues this weekend (March 14-16), is stunning in every respect from the stellar leads to strong supporting players to a fine ensemble. Lorraine Tennant’s direction is also first-rate, no small achievement in a sprawling show with a cast of more than 30 performers.

The only flaws are ones inherent in the material itself. The score, while filled with lush melodies, gets a bit repetitious toward the end with a succession of plaintive ballads. The plot is also melodramatic in the extreme.

That being said, very few shows pack the emotional punch of Miss Saigon.

The musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., tells the story of a tragic romance between a Vietnamese woman, Kim, and an American soldier, Chris, played out against the Vietnam War.

One source for the musical is obviously Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. But Schonberg reportedly also was inspired by a magazine photograph that showed a somber Vietnamese mother leaving her child at the departure gate at Tan Son Nhut Airport. The child was bound for a waiting father, an ex-GI, and hopefully a better life in the United States. Schonberg called the mother’s action “the ultimate sacrifice.”

This is pretty strong stuff, and Miss Saigon doesn’t shy away from it. In fact, the first song in Act II, “Bui Doi,” translated as “dust of the earth,” features a series of projected photographs of  American-Asian children, fathered by American soldiers and left behind to a bleak future.

Equally unsettling is the theme of  betrayal that runs through the musical. A centerpiece of the show is the fall of Saigon in 1975, and abandonment of the Vietnamese who worked for us. Tennant stages the scene beautifully using light and sound effects to convey the terror of the South Vietnamese left behind as the last helicopter left the embassy’s roof top.

The key character is Kim, the Vietnamese bargirl, who falls in love with an American soldier. Lauren Kovacic is absolutely stunning in the role. She sings wonderfully and conveys not only Kim’s innocence, but her steely determination and strength. In the end, she breaks your heart.

Josh Smith is also fine as Chris, her GI lover. The character could come off as bland, but Smith shows the man’s inner anguish at leaving Kim behind, and the moral dilemma he faces at the end of the show. He also sings well.

On one level, the character of Chris symbolizes America’s abandonment of its own ideals in Vietnam. We came to do good but ended up doing a lot of bad. It’s to Smith’s credit that the character is always flesh and blood and never seems to be a symbol.

The third main character is the Engineer, played by Matt Gaska. The character, who operates the bar where Kim works, is one of the most despicable characters ever put on stage. A pimp and profiteer, his sleaziness contrasts with the purity of Kim and Chris’ love affair.

Gaska is fine in the role, although he’s a bit over the top at times. His acting at the end of Act I makes the character seem drunk, not depraved. And he never quite captures the character’s Mephistophelian evil.

Still his presentation of the show-stopping number, “The American Dream,” a caustic commentary on the underside of American life, is superb. It’s one of the show’s highlights.

A pleasant surprise is the quality of the supporting cast. Anne Fabiano, as Chris’ American wife, does an excellent job with the power ballad, “Now That I’ve Seen Her” in Act II. Her character is pretty much a cipher, so Fabiano doesn’t have much to work with, but she arouses sympathy in the role.

A strong performance also is turned in by Megan Germond, as GiGi, another bargirl. Germond is deeply affecting in one of the show’s best numbers, the poignant “The Movie in My Mind,” at the start of Act I. Unfortunately the potentially interesting character disappears after that. Schonberg and Boublil should have developed her more.

Michael Farley does a solid job as John, Chris’ best friend, and leads the moving rendition of “Boi Doi” at the start of Act II.

Finally Andrew Simek is strong in the role of Thuy, a North Vietnamese soldier once betrothed to Kim. Simek brings a sense of empathy to a character who could have been a stock villain. As misguided as the character is, Simek’s portrayal makes you understand his wounded pride and feelings for Kim.

The show had a four-piece orchestra. Maureen Helms, musical director, was on piano and keyboard; Denise Helms was keyboard and French horn; Christina Dinella was on keyboard, flute and saxophone; and Al Miele was on drums and percussion. The sound was mixed well, and the orchestra never drowned out the performers.
All in all, it’s a wonderful production. Kudos also go to choreographer Daniel Kermidas and the technical and set construction crews.

When it comes to geopolitics, Miss Saigon is certainly simplistic, but I went to the theater looking for an emotional experience, not a history lesson. And Miss Saigon delivers that emotion a big way.

IF YOU GO: Miss Saigon will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (March 14-15) and 3 p.m. Sunday (March 16) in EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theatre, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $20 ($18 for ages 65 and older). Call 785-8903, go online to endicottarts.com or visit the box office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

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8 Responses to "EPAC scores a solid success with ‘Miss Saigon’"

  1. Great review. I was a little curious why you didn’t mention 18-month-old Steven who played Tam?

  2. Will

    I saw the show Saturday, and I agree with you that the leads for the most part were all fantastic, but other than that I do not agree with you much. I thought that the ensemble was very sloppy and a little all over the place. In the larger numbers, they all seemed to just be a large mass of people, not an actual ensemble.

    The choreography was more distracting than interesting, and it seemed that it was too difficult for more than half of the dancers. The choreographer should have either made the moves more simple or cut the many who couldn’t handle it. It was like, whenever people were dancing, the show and story went on hold, and the focus went to the choreography, which is not what a good choreographer does.

    It was a good thing the leads were so great to help the ensemble except for The Engineer. I agree with you about him — he was way too over the top. But all of the other leads were fantastic. I especially loved “Bui Doi,” “Why God Why” and “I’d Give My Life For You”

    Overall, if I’d give this show a grade, it’d be a B-. There is a bit of good in it, but there are some things that it lacks and could improve on. Still worth seeing if you don’t have anything else to do.

  3. Lou Ligouri

    Hi, Will. Thanks for your critique of the show. Everyone obviously has their own opinion, and I’m sure that you feel strongly about yours. George Basler is a straight shooter, VERY knowledgeable, and I respect his review.

    Sorry to see that you didn’t feel stongly enough about your “review” to post using your full name. In any event, we all learn by observation, and, while I don’t agree with your remarks about the ensemble and choreography, I don’t believe I would ever make a negative post without revealing my name.

    Courage after all, typically reveals the truth. Cowardice, not so much.

  4. Will

    I’m sorry I didn’t care for parts of your show, but I bet if I was saying how amazing every bit of the performance was, you wouldn’t be calling me a coward. I find it rude that you would call a patron of your theater that just because I don’t want to share my last name and because I didn’t think the show was perfect. I enjoyed Spamalot in November; does me not sharing my last name for saying that make me a coward as well?

    I go to shows frequently with my wife, and I was heavily involved with plays and musicals for the majority of my life but due to health reasons I can’t really perform anymore. So, for the past few years, I have been enjoying theater just by going, and so I see as much as I can. And I would say, because I’ve only been able to go to see shows and see a lot, I am also “VERY” knowledgable about theater.

    Sorry I didn’t care for the dancing. For me it was just simply too much. And it looked like many of the dancers felt the same way.

    Kim, Chris and the other leads were great, but there just were parts I did not care for, plain and simple.

    If you are willing to get reviewed you should be able to handle opinions both good and bad. I didn’t think that I was malicious with what I said. It was just those few things I didn’t care for.

  5. I’ll take the positive AND the negative comments and process them to learn and grow from this experience. Thank you, George, for coming to the show to review us and for posting your review. Thank you, Will, for coming to the show on Saturday night and then posting your comments here. Thank you, Lou and Jeff, for your comments and support. I would also like to thank everyone who has already seen the show this past weekend, and everyone who will be seeing Miss Saigon this weekend.

  6. Lou Ligouri

    Hi again, Will.

    Please don’t misunderstand. I have no problem at all with your critcism of the show. Ig that was your perception, I totally appreciate that you have your own point of view. Please don’t apologize for having an opinion.

    My problem is that you chose to voice your “review” anonymously. In my mind, an anonymous “review” inherently is perceived as being inaccurate, false or purposely slanted. After all, there is no way to even know whether that person actually even saw the show or not.Perhaps you are friends with someone(s) in the cast or involved with the production and didn’t want to offend them. I can understand that. But if so, why post it all? To hurt the organization?

    That’s my final my 2 cents.

  7. Will

    If you honestly perceived it as inaccurate or false, then you would not have commented about it. I am not a professional reviewer. I do not need to put my full name down. You’re on my case enough as is; I can only imagine the harassment I’d receive if I put my full name.

    Rest assured knowing I was there Saturday with my wife and. for the most part. we enjoyed the show.

    And I am a big supporter of the Endicott Performing Arts Center. If I wanted to “hurt the organization,” I think I could say a lot worse than I didn’t care for the choreography. I see just about every show there each year. Some are better than others. That is just how it is and you can’t expect to please everyone or be offended if someone doesn’t like it.

  8. Lou Ligouri

    My apologies if you felt I was harrassing you.

    I appreciate your support of community theater.

    Fair enough.