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Review: Miss Saigon Raises Hopes, But Falls Short of Its Ambitions

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Miss Saigon Vintage Theatre 303-856-7830 Miss Saigonis one of those ponderous English musicals that lumbered onto West End and Broadway stages during the 1980s and early '90s. Like Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, it's reliant on a throbbing score, big displays of emotion and stunning special effects -- in this case, an evocation of the rising helicopter that took the last Americans from Saigon in the chaotic final days of the Vietnam War, leaving many of the locals who worked with them to the tender mercies of the Viet Cong. See also: Best Place for Dinner and a Play 2014 -- Vintage Theatre

The plot of Miss Saigon is based on the opera Madame Butterfly, in which an American soldier takes a Japanese woman as a geisha wife, a temporary arrangement common during the early twentieth century, and then deserts her. Here it's Chris, a U.S. marine falling in love with a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese girl and -- in the midst of war and carnage -- delighting in her gentle innocence. While Butterfly's B.F. Pinkerton is a cad, Chris is separated from his Kim through no fault of his own. Once home, he eventually marries. But Kim still considers herself his wife, and she has some reason: After his departure, she gave birth to their child.

Since its 1989 debut, the show has been dogged by all kinds of controversy, starting with the thorny political issues raised by the war itself. The U.S. troops in Miss Saigon are portrayed sympathetically as discouraged and demoralized, aware of the futility of their effort. But the Vietnamese victors are shown as mindless, marching automatons in black pajamas, red sashes and conical hats -- and anyone who remembers the supple guerrilla tactics with which the Viet Cong defeated the most powerful military in the world has to be aware of just how dumb and reductive that image is. Some critics said the characterization of passive, love-struck Kim fed pervasive stereotypes of Asian women. More critics emerged when the show transferred from London to New York. The casting of Jonathan Pryce in the key role of the Engineer had been okay with the English, but Actors' Equity was outraged: Were there no Asian-American actors who could have filled the role?

Director Rebecca Joseph has cast several Asian-Americans in this Vintage Theatre production, however, and the Engineer is even played by a woman, Arlene Rapal of Theatre Esprit Asia. I was intrigued to see Miss Saigon in a smaller venue, staged by a company that doesn't have tens of thousands of dollars for whiz-bang special effects; I hoped the intimate setting would reveal subtle riches. But though the staging, including the helicopter scene, is ingenious, no one seems to have communicated the idea of intimacy to the music director or the sound designer, because the sound levels are excruciatingly loud. Rob Riney, who plays Chris, and Regina Fernandez Steffen, as Kim, have good voices -- you can tell from the soft opening moments of their songs. But no sooner are those songs fully launched than the orchestra surges and the badly over-miked voices become distorted, ugly and assaultive. Steffen performs with a great deal of passion, but she tends to start shouting even when speaking -- perhaps to counteract any criticism of her character as stereotypical -- and though she and Riney kiss long and passionately, I didn't feel a real current between them or, whether because of the acting or the uninspired score, a whole lot of empathy for them, either.

Keegan Flaugh, playing Chris's friend John, makes a very convincing marine (which apparently he was) and has a fine voice. And Rapal is terrific as the cunning, profiteering pimp of an Engineer, coming across as a sort of mash-up of the Old Lady of Leonard Bernstein's Candide (who survived no matter how much trouble she found herself in), the salacious Emcee in Cabaret, and Brecht's titular heartless proto-capitalist in Mother Courage. There's also a nice performance from Abby McInerny as Chris's American wife, Ellen: kindly, placid and soothing to listen to -- at least until Ellen, too, feels compelled to release all her angry demons in shrieking song. Hao Liu's whirling and too-brief display of martial arts is a high point.

There's a lot of raw passion and energy in this production -- I just wish Miss Saigon was more worthy of it.

Miss Saigon is presented by Vintage Theatre through February 1, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora. For more information, call 303-856-7830 or go to vintagetheatre.org

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