It’s a formulaic play, but superb performances in Marini’s last show.
When the French musical theater team of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel burst into the public’s consciousness in the mid 1980s with the now legendary “Les Miserables,” it was the hope of fans of this musical genre that we might have a new team with the promise of another Rodgers and Hammerstein, or more recently and aptly, the crowd-pleasing Andrew Lloyd Webber. Those earlier prolific producers of musical theater knew how to continue to enchant audiences with one successful hit after another, over a good number of years.
But in the case of “Les Miz’s” collaborators, subsequent efforts over nearly thirty years have been disappointing, to say the least. One, only, of their continued combined efforts has moved toward a modicum of success enjoyed by those previous creators from the Golden Age of musical theater, and that one is “Miss Saigon.” As their mid-summer sensational musical spectacular of the season, Flat Rock Playhouse has chosen to present this second-rate, also-ran show and, as often, this stellar company gets from the material every possible ounce of excellence inherit therein.
“Miss Saigon” is formulaic in the way that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘big five’ shows were formulaic. A dab of this and a dab of that, a tad of tolerance and terror, and while the orchestrations are over-the-top in emotional wallop, there is hardly a tune worth carrying as far as the lobby. All the aforementioned or alluded to scores have several soaring ballads and lilting tunes familiar to us all. “Miss Saigon” has operatic pretensions and more than one poignant Puccini moment, but not a memorable melody worth a mention.
The Puccini reference resonates, in that this French concoction, “Miss Saigon,” borrows generously from that composer’s famed three-act opera, “Madama Butterfly,” which itself was taken from both a late 1880s French novel, and from a later 19th century short story told by a Philadelphia lawyer, dramatized by David Belasco and seen on the London stage by Puccini in 1900. Even with that distinguished pedigree, coupled with America’s horrible history in Vietnam in the 1970s, this drastic drama needs a major transfusion, and Flat Rock gives it just that.
But we’ve come to know that when former Flat Rock artistic director Vincent Marini gets his hands on a musical production it will be tailored as well as the material allows, often being far superior to those in London or New York. Marini usually chooses major and monumental material and makes it even more memorable. His “Zelda” and the recent “The Fantasticks” are only two examples of such fine work. But this time — alas his last time at Flat Rock — Marini takes some mediocre material and makes it marvelous, if only because of the high level of theatricism in all its realms.
As usual, Flat Rock has a cast to die for: Kim, the Asian innocent to the American cad is totally lovely as given by Diana Huey. Her paramour, the young studly American military dude who fathers her child then returns to marry in America is portrayed by John Ashley Brown. These, and other highly capable voices are powerfully amplified and do what they can with Schönberg’s needy score. No question that the scene stealer supreme is Mel Maghuyop as “The Engineer,” the prime pimp and ‘go-to-guy’ for anything nefarious or naughty.
The visuals are terrific, seductive projections of a new order by Shawn Duan, scenic designer Dennis Mauldin having done everything right to let us imagine being in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in terrible times. The famed helicopter ‘escape’ scene was a bit disappointing as the chopper sound was terrifying real, the lights blindingly bright, but the vehicle failed to levitate in the stage smoke and scrim-like fogginess. Should have been a fairly simple addition to the otherwise dazzling display.
The nine loft musicians belted out those high decibel ditties with lots of gusto under the direction of Michael Sebastian.
Puccini would have been proud of the voices who interpreted the lushly orchestrated score, but his inspiration was sorely lacking in the try-to-be arias that, like the helicopter, just don’t make it off the ground. Stunning sound effects and sound design by Nick Kourtides and ingenious lighting by Stephen Terry saved the day and minimized the effect of a less-than-inspiring script and score.
Jim Cavener writes theater reviews for Scene. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
What: “Miss Saigon.”
When: 8 p.m. Wed-Sat, 2 p.m. Wed-Sun. through Aug. 24.
Where: Flat Rock Playhouse, 2661 Greenville Highway, Flat Rock.
Tickets: $40, $38 seniors, $30 students, www.flatrockplayhouse.org, 693-0731.