Miss Saigon doesn't miss

By Joseph Planta

VANCOUVER - The heat was on in 1975 Saigon, as it's on again at the newly named Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Granville Street with the Arts Club's latest, Miss Saigon. The show opens with a set reflecting the kitschy and tawdry '70s, awash with scantily clad women of the night bumping and grinding. As Saigon is about to fall, American GI's buy, touch, and grope the wears of those willing to sell. Run by the sleazy Engineer, played by John Mann, there's a lot of innuendo at the aptly named Dreamland nightclub, where each night one of the girls is crowned 'Miss Saigon' and is raffled off to a lucky soldier.

Enter into this den of depravity and sexual abyss before AIDS, Kim, a virginal orphan beauty of 17, who flees to Saigon when her country village is destroyed. Kim, played by Nena Lazo, enters in a traditional Vietnamese outfit that is far too dressed up compared to the other women working. As the North does battle for the South against the Americans (who find themselves there after the French fled), all the girls want is to flee their haemorrhaging homeland. Playing out the movie in their minds, Kim and Gigi (played by Robyn Wong), wish for a better life. Their ideal is America, and it's their hope that one of the soldiers who frequent Dreamland will deign to take them to the United States.

While all of the frivolity plays itself on the stage, a disenchanted soldier named Chris, played by Jonathan Winsby, meets eyes with Kim's. A pal buys her for Chris, and unlike most who'd frivol then flee in the morning, he falls in love. He makes house with Kim while in Saigon, and soon enough it falls to the North. Kim and Chris are separated by cultures at war; emotions engulfed by outside exigencies.

The backdrop of the war in Vietnam and today's headlines of a war in Iraq make this show prescient. The show isn't necessarily an indictment of the war, or the American participation. Rather it's a biting appraisal of the dreams in many's heads about America. Foremost is seen in the character of The Engineer, who is a pivotal character in the story, bringing Kim and Chris together, who also has his own desires to get out of Vietnam and go to the United States, where it's perhaps more idyllic than Vietnam or Thailand in the 1970s. The Engineer is a half-breed himself, much like Tam, the son Kim bears after her relationship with Chris.

Based on the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon is from the same Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, who brought theatre Les Miserables (Richard Maltby Jr. is credited as a co-lyricist with Boublil). It's sung throughout, with no dialogue, which is obviously a remarkable challenge for the performers, who do a serviceable job vocally.

Nena Lazo as Kim is outstanding in her ability to go from innocent waif trying to play the part of whore in Engineer's Dreamland, to playing the unadulterated romantic, to becoming the courageous mother willing to do anything for her son Tam. This mix of innocence and tenacity fulfills the demands of a challenging role that spans an emotional and vocal register. Chris, played by Jonathan Winsby was ferocious in his delivery, portraying the dichotomy of feelings his character was going through. He was particularly powerful in his performances of "Why God, Why?" and during the fall of Saigon bit, when Americans are forced to abdicate. As well, he was remarkably evocative in the finale, but if I told you why, I'd probably spoil the plot for you.

John Mann as The Engineer was nothing short than amazing. He takes no prisoners as he takes the stage with brooding charisma. His is not a character you're sympathetic too, but he's so strong, he redeems himself at every turn. He steals the show whenever he appears, and he stops the show with the grand 11.00 number "The American Dream," replete with dancing showgirls and boys. It's clear he's a fan favourite in this town, and in Miss Saigon, he's spectacular.

The entire cast was stunning. The foursome of girls from Dreamland-Wong, Nicolette Liwanag, Lannette New, and Lisa Ho-were bewitching, not to mention beguiling in various stages of undress. They didn't undress in the theatre, but the theatre of the mind takes over surely. Broderick Chow is worth mentioning because I found his character Thuy nearly despicable. That's gotta mean he did good in playing the part. Jayme Armstrong as Ellen was sublime shining in her two numbers despite the fact hers was not a highly visible role. (She looks a bit like Jane Krakowski. Could a revival of Grand Hotel be in her future?)

Matt Palmer as John was good. He performed with unaccustomed ferocity in the "Bui-Doi" number that opened the second act. It surely moved many in the audience with the collection of photographs of Vietnamese children that were projected. The song sung was dramatic, but the setup was a bit contrived. The group of men in icky 1970s polyester suits replete with bellbottoms, looked like seeing John McCain, John Kerry, and Bob Kerrey at press conference of Vietnam vets turned pols, hosting some sort of Capitol Hill infomercial.

Miss Saigon has the reputation of being 'that show with a helicopter.' I'm sure many in the audience familiar with the show waited with bated breath to see what the Arts Club would come up with. They didn't disappoint. Not since Carol Channing descended the stairs in Hello, Dolly! has a descent centre stage gotten such a welcome ovation.

Miss Saigon at the Stanley is an exceptional show. Perhaps never before has a cast of non-Asians and Asians been integrated so well on a stage in Vancouver. The show's score soars, and the cast is there every inch of the way for the ride, bringing to life an emotional story that's timeless. It's a very fine effort by everyone. It's not to miss.


Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr. is at The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage from May 19 to July 17, 2005. Directed by Bill Millerd. Musical Direction by Bruce Kellett. Choreography by Valerie Easton. The cast of Miss Saigon includes John Mann as the Engineer, Nena Lazo as Kim, Jonathan Winsby as Chris, Matt Palmer as John, Jayme Armstrong as Ellen, with Broderick Chow, Jeremy Crittenden, Jeni Haskett, Lisa Ho, Alfred Liu, Nicolette Liwanag, Troy V. McLaughlin, Lannette New, Ben Ngui, Ryan Reid, Robbie Niño Rementilla, Yifeng Song, Jon-Paul Walden, Robyn Wong. Tuesday - Saturday at 8 pm and Wednesday, Saturday, & Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $46 - 59, with discounts for students, seniors, and groups. Call Ticketmaster 604.280.3311 or the Arts Club Box Office 604.687.1644, or hit up: www.artsclub.com.


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