Chicago Theatre Review
The Heat is On in Saigon
Miss Saigon – Jedlicka Performing Arts Center
While Jedlicka Performing Arts Center has been around for quite a while, its 33rd season may be opening with one of its finest productions, to date. Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the talented team responsible for another
musical mega hit, “Les Miserables,” followed up their success with this contemporary retelling of Puccini’s opera, “Madama Butterfly.” Inspired by a magazine photo showing a Vietnamese mother making “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” selflessly forcing her daughter aboard a jet bound for America, so that she might have a better life with her ex-GI father, the composers joined forces with lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and created this tragic love story that speaks to today’s audiences.
In 1991, following its West End triumph (which played over 4,000 performances), “Miss Saigon” opened on Broadway and played for the next ten years. The show went on to win several Tony and Drama Desk Awards, spawned at least three National Tours and a whole slew of international and regional productions. Even JPAC’s current offering could be considered a revival, since a successful production played there only about a decade ago. Artistic Director Dante J. Orfei clearly not only loves this show, but his passion for the material can be seen in this impeccable production.
Mr. Orfei’s current production is a triumph in so many ways. First is Mike Pryzgoda’s superb musical direction, not only in guiding his talented cast to vocal heights, but for assembling and conducting an extraordinary 19-member, professional-sounding orchestra that truly honors Schonberg’s haunting, operatic score. Next is Mr. Orfei’s excellence in staging this difficult, often challenging piece. In particular, he handles crowd scenes, like the complicated Vietnamese Embassy evacuation, with style and clarity, always focusing attention amidst all the chaos. Terrific multimedia design is provided by Michael A. Kott, bringing new emotional strength to the opening of the show, to Act II’s moving “Bui-Doi,” as well as throughout the show’s many scenic transitions. Mr. Kott also uses his beautiful visuals to solve the problem of the helicopter rescue, and he adds another layer of luster to Michael Nedza’s simple, but effectively fluid scenic design. Mr. Orfei’s lighting design guides his audience toward specific visual awareness, especially among the musical’s large cast.
But the biggest achievement of this production might be Mr. Orfei’s superb casting. JPAC favorite, Shana Dagny is magnificent as Kim. This Filipino actress not only possesses a phenomenal voice, handling this demanding vocal score with ease, but Ms. Dagny takes the audience on an emotional journey that is unequaled. She’s especially touching in the scenes with Kim’s tiny son, Tam (played with quiet innocence and dignity by little Isabelle Wenghofer). The power of this title role could be attributed to excellent writing, of course, but it can’t be denied that Ms. Dagny fills in the spaces with her beautiful, heartfelt portrayal. An international performer, Shana Dagny is the best reason for seeing this production.
Joel Camden, another regular on the JPAC stage, makes his mark as the Engineer. Perhaps a bit young for the role, Mr. Camden brings a devilish likability to a man who despicably uses others for his own advancement. Audiences will overlook the Engineer’s immoral methods and come to admire the drive and determination behind his motivation to survive. With a beautifully trained voice and sporting excellent diction, Mr. Camden has got this role down to an art form, and his performance of “The American Dream” fantasy number is his star-making moment. As Chris, the American GI who falls in love with the lovely Vietnamese teenage girl, Steve Lugovsky does a fine job. Sometimes straining a bit on the higher notes, Mr. Lugovsky demonstrates that he’s an accomplished singer and actor. His strongest moments come during the dramatic Fall of Saigon scene, as he desperately tries to help Kim escape with him, and in the final scenes, when Chris must decide between the two loves of his life.
A trained opera singer, the excellent Daniel Wilson plays Chris’ Marine buddy, John. Bringing gravitas and masculine emotional strength to his role, Mr. Wilson stands out, particularly in his Act II opener, the poignant “Boi-Doi,” backed by a finely-directed male ensemble. Other standouts in this production include the lovely Carisa Gonzalez as Ellen, Chris’ American wife. Her performance of Ellen’s passionate musical soliloquy, “Now That I’ve Seen Her,” is gorgeous and well-acted. She effectively creates empathy for a role that, in lesser hands, might be considered an antagonist. Michelle Jasso and Nicole Chamberlin stand out from the ensemble as Gigi and Yvette with “The Heat is On in Saigon” and, with Kim, “The Movie in My Mind.”
This production is a winner in every way. Where so often sound has been a problem in past JPAC’s musicals, the microphone issues have been eliminated and every word and lyric can be easily heard and understood. In addition to skillfully casting and directing this dramatic musical to perfection, Director Dante J. Orfei has also created a terrific soundtrack, which includes a deafening helicopter’s arrival, that transports audiences back in time and place. All things considered, this production could easily stand out as one of the company’s finest offerings in its long history. Running for only one more weekend, this sensational show, which is a complete artistic achievement in every way, should not be missed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 31-August 15 by the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, on the campus of Morton College, 3801 S. Central Ave., Cicero, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 708-656-1800, ext. 2230.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.