It would be easy to have modest expectations for “Miss Saigon.” For starters, topping last summer’s “Les Miserables” is quite a colossal task.
Yet David Johnston and the team from Maui Academy of Performing Arts have done just that. “Saigon” is slightly darker and a little less popular than its “Les Mis” cousin, but from set, to lights, sound and performances, MAPA’s “Saigon” raises the bar on utilizing every possible aspect the Castle Theater has to offer. Johnston’s use of tableaus is exquisitely beautiful, and from its first number, “The Heat is On in Saigon,” this show thrills the crowd with polish and detail.
Designed by Dan Hays, “Saigon” has been implemented by more than a dozen contributors and requires another dozen running crew members to seamlessly evolve in front of your eyes, rivaling a behemoth Broadway show.
An early highlight is Hoku Pavao as Gigi singing, “The Movie In My Mind.” Pavao allows the audience to empathize with the “girls” of Dreamland, quickly removing the stigma that they are prostitutes. After Gigi wins the Miss Saigon beauty contest, she is raffled to an American Marine. “Will you take me to America? I will make a good wife,” she says. The Marine recoils and complains to The Engineer (Kepa Cabanilla-Aricayos), the proprietor of the club, and she is immediately scolded. Ricky Jones, as Chris is persuaded by his buddy John (Neil Clevenger), to pick a girl for the night. He is immediately mesmerized by Kim (Sharon Zalsos), a 17-year-old war orphan. The role of Chris requires a strong tenor voice, as do most Broadway leading male roles. In the case of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, that means singing in the stratosphere, a range very few men in the world can conquer. Jones’ vocals and character portrayal are not only impressive, but again, Broadway quality. By dawn, Kim and Chris have fallen in love with the intention of marriage and a new life in America, (“Sun and Moon”).
Zalsos, as Kim, delivers an astounding arc of character. She is so convincing as a shy teen that short of her remarkable vocals, she is almost an afterthought through much of act one. Three years later, now in Ho Chi Minh City, a new Kim emerges. Zalsos commands the stage as an imposing single mother fiercely determined to protect her son, Tam (Herman Andaya and Caleb Chargualaf), at any cost, (“You Will Not Touch Him”). Zalsos transforms before your eyes into an entirely different actress, appearing physically older simply through facial expression and the timbre of her voice. Kim’s antagonist is Thuy (Barry Kawakami). She is betrothed to him by her murdered parents. Kawakami, in another difficult tenor role, excels in “The Morning of the Dragon” (featuring a 20-foot golden statue of Ho Chi Minh), as well as “Back In Town.”
With each passing phenomenal vocal performance, yet another even more remarkable one is just around the corner in “Saigon.” Act two opens with a spectacular number “Bui-Doi,” sung by Clevenger. The casting of Clevenger as John is near perfection. Not only does he look like a Marine, but his vocal range is the equal of Jones and Kawakami’s, eliciting thundering applause. In “Kim’s Nightmare,” we flash back to April of 1975, and the Fall of Saigon. Kim, trapped outside the U.S. Embassy gates, cannot flee with Chris. Chris is determined to enter the mob outside to rescue her. John has no choice but to knock him unconscious. The Castle Theater reverberates with the high decibels of a helicopter just above, so much so one will feel their eardrums vibrate. A large helicopter lowers from the fly system and rests upon a rolling tower. One by one, the Embassy staff, Marines, Chris and John pile in the last helicopter leaving Saigon, disappearing high into the theater rafters as the reverberation fades. The most moving “Saigon” number is “Room 317.” Chris is now married to an American, Ellen, played by Leighanna Locke. Her duet with Zalsos, as the two fully realize their pledges of love to Chris (as well as Kim’s love for Tam) is chicken-skin theater. Locke, like Clevenger, is ideal as Ellen and showcases her vocal excellence throughout the evening.
In “The Confrontation,” Ellen, John and Chris reveal the American couple will abandon Kim and Tam in Bangkok, but offer financial support. John protests, convinced Kim will not accept the decision. The Engineer, unaware but sensing he will soon see his vision fulfilled, launches into a much-needed comedic number, “The American Dream,” wonderfully choreographed by Andre Morissette. Cabanilla-Aricayos delivers the exclamation point on a production filled with show-stoppers. This immensely gifted performer has been flying under the radar for many years. His portrayal of the Engineer is possibly the best of all the Broadway-quality offerings throughout this show.
The tragic end of “Saigon” should not be revealed, but it is beautifully and artistically staged. The effect is so simple, yet haunting and deeply moving. Musically you may not exit the Castle humming tunes as in “Les Mis,” but the 25-piece orchestra (conducted by musical director Gary Shin-Leavitt) is comparable to the largest orchestras on Broadway and superior to last year’s Broadway tour of “Wicked.” For MAPA to make all these pieces work together required a top-notch artistic team. Daniel Vicars, Bob Offerman, Christina Sutrov, Lina Kruger and Tina Kailiponi may not have been seen on stage, but all those “wow” moments that happen rely on them and many additional backstage assistants. It is in those tableaus that we see the unity of this vast undertaking; a cast of 45 connected even if it’s Marine #2 frozen in pose with bar girl #3, completely in character and conveying emotion. If I had a favorite “Miss Saigon” moment, it may have been the expression on Zalsos’ face at curtain call. I’m guessing that her joy and pride was mirrored by the entire cast and crew in that moment.
More in store
Catch comic Bobby Lee, star of “MADtv” and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” tonight only. Performance is at 7:30 in Yokouchi Pavilion at the MACC. Tickets range from $20 to $38 (plus applicable fees).
Willie K’s “A Pair of Queens and A Pair of Jacks” night of comedy features a lineup of top local comic personalities at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 28 in the McCoy Studio Theater at the MACC. Cost is from $25 to $40 (plus fees).
To purchase tickets for these two MACC shows, call 242-7469 or order online at www.mauiarts.org.