If you're looking for a good example of what great hidden gems are being produced at Southern California regional theaters these days, then look (and listen) no further than the enjoyable revival of the smash musical MISS SAIGON currently playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through May 6 (the show will also play three shows at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside, CA starting May 11).
Produced for La Mirada by McCoy Rigby Entertainment—the same team that will launch the pre-National Tour/pre-Broadway revival of the musical Jeckyll and Hyde later this year—this surprisingly full-scale production of the West End/Broadway hit is not only a feast for those with a penchant for big, grandiose theatrics, it will also please those seeking to hear a lovely, euphoric score performed by a talented ensemble.
A creation of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil—the duo responsible for another Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza Les Misérables—plus additional material by Richard Maltby, Jr., MISS SAIGON is the twentieth century musical theater update of Giacomo Puccini's similarly-themed opera Madame Butterfly. This time, the tragic love story is pitted against the backdrop of mid-1970's Saigon, at the height of the Vietnam War.
The story focuses on shy, orphaned Kim (Jacqueline Nguyen), who we initially meet as a 17-year-old on her first day at work as a server at a seedy club-bar. The raunchy establishment is owned by the Engineer (the terrific Joseph Anthony Foronda), a French-Vietnamese man that pimps out both hard liquor and bikini-clad girls to the horny American Soldiers that have become regulars since their arrival to Vietnam. The marines sense something is brewing in the volatile nation and that their tour of duty will likely end soon.
While the other, more, uh, outgoing girls—all of whom would qualify as future instructors at the Pussycat Dolls school of gyration—compete in a make-shift "Miss Saigon" pageant to the vulgar delight of the visiting Americans, one Sergeant, Chris (Kevin Odekirk) sits in one corner, distinctly disinterested in the debauchery around him.
Egged on by his buddy John (Lawrence Cummings), Chris somehow locks eyes—across the thong-crowded room—with the more innocent Kim, who clearly doesn't belong in these surroundings. Under the guise of saving her from the tyranny of her employment, Chris agrees to dance with Kim, then later whisks her away to a room purchased by John on the couple's behalf. Almost overnight, as deemed by the laws of musical theater, the two fall deeply in love and even hold an informal wedding ceremony some days later to solidify their relationship.
Understandably, their taboo, cross-cultural love affair is met head-on by several obstacles: from the conniving Engineer, whose motivations are dictated by greed and self-preservation, to Thuy (Aidan Park), Kim's cousin and—yikes—pre-arranged fiancé, who also happens to be an officer in the North Vietnamese Army. And, of course, there's that other little thing threatening everyone involved: the eventual rise of the Viet Cong, which later forces the evacuation of all remaining Americans from Vietnam, ultimately severing the ties that bind Chris and Kim.
While I am personally not a huge fan of the super-affected, overblown Euro-wave of musical theater spectacles that rang up most of the box office receipts during the 80's and early 90's, MISS SAIGON—in regards to score, pacing and narrative—is more palatable for me, mostly because it feels like the first show of the lot to attempt to tone down the loud, logo-emblazoned cheese-factor of its more pompous predecessors. It's a fitting hybrid of the excess of its common ilk with the more mature storytelling and showmanship gravitas of later shows that came after this wave. Of all the shows that fall within that Schönberg/Boublil/Webber/Rice/Mackintosh-type oeuvre, this musical, by a long-shot, transcends them all.
And for a smaller-scaled production, this well-paced, slightly raunchier regional revival of MISS SAIGON—under the direction of Brian Kite and using sets courtesy of nearby Fullerton Civic Light Opera—impresses in such a way that one leaves at the end of the show feeling like they've seen a much grander production than is really there (the sight of that towering Ho Chi Minh statue during "The Morning of the Dragon" in Act 1 and, yes, that infamous helicopter in Act 2 will at least wow even the most cynical of audience members).