'Miss Saigon," unlike other epic musicals of the 1980s and 1990s, is not based on a romantic literary source or classic fairy tale. The gritty reality of this Vietnam-era drama takes special understanding and commitment to make it work. Such is the case for N.C. Theatre's current riveting, emotionally gripping staging.
Here the famous helicopter sequence of the 1975 U.S. Embassy evacuation, although technically thrilling, is rightly not the main reason to see the show. The effect is one of many involving events in this Madame Butterfly-like story of doomed love and its mortal consequences.
Jennifer Paz is a model of delicate innocence as Kim, the Vietnamese girl forced to work in a brothel. Eric Kunze's Chris, the war-weary Marine, exhibits moving tenderness as a one-night stand with Kim turns into unexpected love.
Both performers have strong voices that soar and swell, but they impress even more in quieter passages where their expressions of hopes and fears truly grab emotions. Their fateful parting and tragic reunion are the heart of the show.
Josh Tower's John, the embassy worker who tries to help Chris get Kim out of Saigon, admirably projects strength and integrity. His stirring singing of the powerful "Bui-Doi," a plea to help orphaned children of Vietnam, is worth its own standing ovation. Jennifer Shrader brings a fine vulnerability to Ellen, whom Chris marries after losing contact with Kim.
The show is wrapped in the dark humor of Kevin Gray's Engineer, the sly opportunist who first hires Kim and later tries to use her as his ticket out of Vietnam after finding she's had a child by Chris.
The Engineer comments bitingly on his country's conflict but ultimately gives in to his own "American Dream," the flashy number about what the U.S. seems to outsiders. Gray's mastery of gesture and timing makes him an audience favorite.
Director Richard Stafford never lets the stage-filling sequences of communist rallies, red-light districts and frenzied refugees overwhelm the intimate storyline. If the staging loses some tension and pacing in doing so, it pays off in audience engagement. John Bartenstein's mesmerizing lighting, playing out over 15 movable cloth shades that form the main backdrop, highlights the physical production.
Amplification often causes problems, but here the balance is perfect, allowing voices to be heard without shatter or buzz. This also lets the orchestra have a more natural sound, a boon for conductor Edward G. Robinson's sensitive detailing of the orchestration's subtle effects.
The production doesn't shy away from the script's strong language and candid sexuality, making it unsuitable for younger attendees. For all others, it should enthrall in ways that phantoms and beasts cannot.