Paper Mill: The State Theater of NJ
Millburn, NJ - Sept. 2002
Review by John Kenrick
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Miss Saigon has never been a favorite of mine. While the music is often impressive, the simple-minded lyrics use rhymes that would embarrass a ten year old. After seeing the original Broadway production once, I had no real desire to see the show again. So it was a pleasant surprise to find myself genuinely moved by the new Paper Mill revival. What a great way for this company to start off its new season!
Much of the credit goes to director Mark S. Hoebee who has helmed some of Paper Mill's best productions over the last few seasons. Once again, his work has improved on the Broadway staging. New York's Miss Saigon relied heavily on hydraulics and spectacular effects that often sometimes got in the way of what is essentially an intimate drama. Hoebee clears up much that was muddied. The production is still lavish and technologically impressive, but it keeps the storyline clear with the doomed love affair at the forefront no small accomplishment! While Hoebee's staging is all-new, the basic iconography of the show is respected, as are the dramatic intentions of the authors. As a consequence, the show comes across more effectively than ever. The sobs that I heard all around me during the final scene said it all . . . this Miss Saigon aims at the heart as well as the eye.
Thanks to Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, this story has been tugging at the Western world's heartstrings for more than a century. (Someone sitting near me at the opening of this production must have just taken their sweater out of summer storage that day. When my companion asked, "Do I smell moth balls?," I unthinkingly responded, "It must be the plot.") An American military man purchases an Asian girl, loves her and leaves her with child, only to return years later with an American wife. The Asian girl is then forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of her son. When French songwriters Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg decided to reset this Japanese tragedy in the context of the Vietnam War, they had a proven winner on their hands. Their demanding pop-operatic score certainly didn't hurt matters, serving up a;; the romance and tragedy with a generous dose of the same contemporary schmaltz that made their Les Miserables an international smash.
Millions of theatergoers have taken Miss Saigon to their hearts, happily overlooking the inexplicably simple-minded translation by gifted Broadway lyricist Richard Maltby. Jr. Familiar as it may be, the story is still too riveting to resist.
Paper Mill has poured $2.5 million into this production, and every penny shows. Michael Anania's sets capture the tawdry and terrifying atmosphere of war-torn Southeast Asia, the costumes by Ray Delle Robbins and Gail Baldoni strike all the right visual notes, and F. Mitchell Dana's lighting is picture perfect. Darren Lee's effective choreography respects the spirit of the original staging while taking a fresh approach to many key scenes. For example, "The American Dream" no longer involves a hump-able Cadillac -- here it becomes a gala Hollywood opening, with all the glitzy "show biz" trappings.
Yes, the infamous helicopter does make an appearance. Although (by necessity) a bit smaller than the one seen on Broadway, the effect is still striking, assisted by an audio effect which gives the sonic impression that the gizmo finally flies over the audience's heads.
Special effects aside, the really good news is that Paper Mill has (as usual) assembled first-rate cast. Dina Lynne Morishita is touching and thoroughly believable as Kim, conveying both the girlish innocence and stony resolve of this complex character. As Chris, Aaron Ramey offers stunning looks and a soaring tenor voice that makes "Why God Why?" a genuine pleasure to hear again. Kate Baldwin has the difficult role of Ellen, Chris's conflicted American bride her rendition of "Now That I've Seen Her" was a highlight. Alan H. Green scored dramatic and musical points as Chris's friend John.
But the greatest triumph belongs to Kevin Gray as the Engineer, a role he previously played on tour. He makes the part his own, pimping and preening with demonic glee, and embodying greed so shamelessly that it is impossible not to love him while you hate him. I have seen this talented actor in several roles, and this is his best performance to date. The roaring ovation for his final bow was well deserved.
Whatever my reservations about Miss Saigon, it is a genuine pleasure to see it in such a first-class production which fans of the show will no doubt adore. After the performance, one man turned to his wife with satisfaction and said, "Now THAT was worth paying full price for!" When was the last time you heard someone say that?