The Starlight Theatre production of “Miss Saigon” could use some sizzle.
The epic musical by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr. is a heart-rending depiction of the final days of the Vietnam War and its legacy. Modeled on Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” this show offers a poignant narrative and lush, compelling music with allusions to other Broadway classics, including “South Pacific,” “Cabaret” and “West Side Story.”
The show tells the story of two star-crossed lovers: An innocent 17-year-old rural orphan, Kim, forced into a sordid Vietnamese brothel, and an American Marine, Chris. They fall in love just before he is supposed to leave Saigon, which soon will fall to the North Vietnamese. Due to an emergency evacuation, Chris, who was ready to take Kim back to the U.S. and marry her, is forced onto a helicopter, destroying their dream of a life together.
Maybe it was opening-night hot weather and humidity, but this production — directed by Fred Hanson and choreographed by Baayork Lee — seems to lack the razzle-dazzle one would expect from a show of this caliber. “The Heat is On in Saigon” is an engaging number, but Dreamland, the bar where Chris meets Kim, should be dripping with sleaze. Instead, it looks like any old gin joint in all the towns in the world (to paraphrase Bogey) except for the fake bamboo backdrop and the semi-abstract graphics depicting Vietnamese peasants.
This lack of oomph is also reflected in The Engineer, played by Orville Mendoza, who runs Dreamland. As opposed to being a mincing, slime-bag pimp as envisioned by actors in other productions, Mendoza seems more cerebral and conniving, anxiously hankering for that passport and visa to the good ole U.S. of A. Mendoza is a fine actor with a serviceable voice, but his rendition of “The American Dream” is not the prancing show-stopper that it should be.
Manna Nichols who portrays Kim is a graceful presence with an appealing voice. She really digs deep when she does her beguiling duet, “I Still Believe” with the talented Kansas City native Meggie Cansler, who plays Ellen, Chris’s American wife. The characters are strong and sympathetic in their love for Chris, and the audience can’t help but root for both of them.
As Chris, Charlie Brady is convincing as a sweet but weary soldier who falls hard and fast for Kim. The quality of his singing was a bit uneven in the early going Saturday night but his voice seemed to gain momentum, especially in “Sun and Moon.”
But Nichols and Brady lack chemistry as a couple. Their renditions of “Sun and Moon” and “Last Night of the World” just didn’t express enough passion or pathos.
The standout in this cast is Nkrumah Gatling, who plays John, Chris’s friend and fellow Marine. He exudes the right balance of machismo and leadership that one might expect from an American soldier who had not been crushed or driven crazy by that sad and difficult war. And his voice has a gorgeous clarity to it.
The number most pleasing to the eye is “The Morning of the Dragon,” with the Viet Cong soldiers dressed in black uniforms, waving red banners and doing interesting choreographic marching steps, along with dancers and acrobats doing back flips.
The scene when Ellen and Kim meet face-to-face evokes the most sorrow as Kim realizes she will never be Chris’s wife and makes a desperate choice concerning her son.
As an overall effort, this “Miss Saigon” is pleasurable but not spectacular.
The big moment in any production is the evacuation by helicopter, which has been depicted in countless ways — from whiz-bang three-dimensional projections to a real Bell helicopter. The chopper in this production isn't bad, visually realistic and accompanied by first-rate sound effects. It elicited light applause.Onstage
“Miss Saigon” runs through Friday at Starlight Theatre in Swope Park. For more information, call816-36-7827 or go to KCStarlight.com.