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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Miss Saigon’ brings intensities of Vietnam War to Appleton

Critic At Large

Fox Cities Performing Arts Center

Program cover.

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV)

“Miss Saigon” continues to hit home, with the North American touring company delivering punches with soaring voices and dynamic acting.

Seven more performances of the Vietnam War super-saga remain to Sunday, Feb. 23, in Thrivent Financial Hall of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

The musical is a hardcore look at American agonies in the 1960s-1970s war from the non-American perspective of the creative duo of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.

Hardcore = seedy scenes of moral decay as American soldiers in teetering Saigon wallow in sexual vices in the garish, drunky/druggy Dreamland nightclub/hellhole that’s vividly portrayed in opening scenes. A similar pit in Bangkok is on display in Act II.

Hardcore = Conflicting emotions in many levels throughout “the whole rotten scene.”  Love is found and smashed. Vietnamese and American belief systems collide. A man is torn between two women, and the women are torn by each other and the man. And the ugly, pus-filled war that creates cynical survivors like the by-hook-or-by-crook character, The Engineer.

Hardcore = Placing The Engineer in the top billing. The love story may swirl around, but the devil-like Engineer makes a major statement in what America had to deal with in Vietnam in this presentation.

The production is a whopper – physical, aggressive and splashy. All sorts of stage tricks keep action flowing. Sets glide in and out, and they are colorful and sometimes sensational. Powerhouse scenes include “The Morning of the Dragon,” a showcase of North Korean communist determination, filled with imagery and gymnastics. Another is the chaos of the evacuation of the American Embassy, now done with a large projection of a helicopter instead of the famed “landing” of a chopper in an eye-popping set piece.

+++ However, this note from the company: “Due to mechanical difficulties, the helicopter effect was not fully executed during the performance (Tuesday) tonight. In order to protect the safety of the cast and crew, the decision was made to continue ‘The Nightmare’ scene without the full physical effect. These difficulties are currently being addressed.”

Overall, the company radiates a sense of commitment. This story means much to many people still today, and the performances reflect that. Within the company, the players have family stories to tell, so they invest that energy in performance.

One of the stars of this production is Red Concepcion, oh so shifty and snarky and calculating as The Engineer. This is a compliment: He makes a Class A+ pimp. Red Concepcion is a dynamo in voicing and body language.

Vocal and character intensity leap from Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa as the lovers, Kim and Chris. The roles are heaped in nuances and demands, and the two deliver.

In key roles, J. Daughtry, as Chris’ buddy John, powerfully unleashes the complexities of “Bui Doi” about the American legacy of children left behind, and Jonelle Margallo, as dicey dancer Gigi, reaches into the depths of hope broken in “The Movie in My Mind.”

“Miss Saigon” is charged with intensity and symbolism beginning to end. It is one of the important musicals of the 20th century, and now it is entering into the realm of a classic.

Side notes: Displays in the lobby add to – and subtract from – the theatergoing. The Military Veterans Museum of Oshkosh provides memorabilia of the Vietnam War experience, and Hmong story cloths provide other perspectives. “Miss Saigon” merchandise also is available at a stand with the sign, “Welcome to Dreamland.” Given the context of Dreamland on stage – a particularly indecent and titillating place – the sign is crass, cynical and offensive.

***

Creative: Concept, book and music – Claude-Michel Schonberg; lyrics – Richard Maltby Jr., book and lyrics – Alain Boublil; additional lyrics – Michael Mahler; producer – Cameron Macintosh; director – Laurence Connor; musical staging – Bob Avian; additional musical staging – Geoffrey Garratt; orchestrations – William David Brohn, musical supervisor – Stephen Brooker; musical director – James Moore; production designers – Totie Driver, Matt Kinley; design concept – Adrian Vaux; costume designer – Andreane Neofitou; lighting design – Bruno Poet; sound design – Mick Potter; projections – Luke Halls

Cast:

The Engineer – Red Concepcion

Kim – Emily Bautista

Chris – Anthony Festa

John – J. Daughtry

Ellen – Ellie Fishman

Thuy – Jinwoo Jung

Gigi – Christine Bunuan

Ensemble, The Engineer in certain performances – Eymard Cabling

Ensemble, Kim in certain performances – Christine Hwang

Ensemble – Philip Ancheta, Devin Archer, Eric Badiqué, Brandon Block (dance captain), Joven Calloway, Rae Leigh Case, Taylor Collins, Matthew Dailey, Noah Gouldsmith, Keila Halili, Ryker Huetter (Tam), Keely Hutton, Haven Je (Tam), David Kaverman, McKinley Knuckle, Madoka Koguchi, Nancy Lam, Ilana Lieberman, Brian Shimasaki Liebson, Garrick Macatangay, Jonelle Margallo, Adalynn Ng (Tam), Jackie Nguyen, Francesca Nong, Matthew Overberg, Noah Pagtakhan (Tam), Robert Pendilla, Adam Roberts, Michael Russell, Julius Sermonia (fight captain), Nicholas Walters, Anna-Lee Wright (assistant dance captain), Warren Yang

Orchestra: Conductor – Will Curry; concertmaster – Zoe Miller, viola – Laura Sacks; cello – Jay Tilton; bass – Mike Epperhart; flute, piccolo, Asian flutes – Mira Magrill; oboe, English horn – Mark Sophia; Bb clarinet, alto sax, flute – Jeremy Clayton; trumpet, flugelhorn – Connor Pietrzak; trombone, bass trombone – Jen Hinkle; French horns – Elizabeth Harraman, Cameron West; drums, percussion – Russ Nyberg; keyboards – Ruth Kwan, Jordan Jones-Reese; music coordinator – John Miller

Running time: Two hours, 47 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19-21; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 23

Info: foxcitiespac.com

***

Musical selections

Act I

Saigon – April 1975

“Overture” / “Backstage Dreamland” – Gigi, Kim, The Engineer and Bar Girls

“The Heat is On in Saigon” – Soldiers, Bar Girls, The Engineer, Kim, John, Chris and Gigi

“The Movie in My Mind” – Gigi, Kim and Bar Girls

“The Transaction” – The Engineer, John, Soldiers, Chris, and Kim

“The Dance” – Kim, Chris and The Engineer

“Why, God, Why?” – Chris

“This Money’s Yours” – Chris and Kim

“Sun and Moon” – Chris and Kim

“The Telephone Song” / “Asking for Leave” – Chris and John

“The Deal” – The Engineer and Chris

“The Wedding Ceremony” – Gigi, Kim, Bar Girls and Chris

“Thuy’s Arrival” / “Thuy’s Intervention” – Thuy, Chris, and Kim

“Last Night of the World” – Chris and Kim

Ho Chi Minh City – April 1978

“The Morning of the Dragon” – Soldiers, The Engineer, Two Guards and Thuy

“I Still Believe” – Kim and Ellen

“Back in Town” / “Coo-Coo Princess” – The Engineer, Kim, Thuy and Soldiers

“Thuy’s Death” / “You Will Not Touch Him” – Thuy and Kim

“This is the Hour” – Chorus

“If You Want to Die in Bed” – The Engineer

“Let Me See His Western Nose” / “Kim & Engineer”– Kim and The Engineer

“I’d Give My Life for You” – Kim

“Exodus” – Chorus

Act II

Atlanta – October 1978

“Entr’acte”

“Bui Doi” – John and Chorus

Bangkok – October 1978

“The Revelation” – Chris and John

“What a Waste” – The Engineer, Hustlers, Tourists, John and Kim

“Please” – John and Kim (Original Production) / “Too Much For One Heart” – John and Kim (2014 London / 2017 Broadway productions)

“Chris is Here” – The Engineer, Kim, Club Owner and John

“Kim’s Nightmare” – Thuy

“Fall of Saigon” – Soldiers, Chris, Kim, John and Citizens

“Sun and Moon” (Reprise) – Kim

“Room 317” – Kim and Ellen

“Maybe” – Ellen

“The Confrontation” – Chris, Ellen, John and Kim

“Paper Dragons” – The Engineer and Kim

“The American Dream” – The Engineer

“This is the Hour” / “Little God of My Heart” (Reprise) – Kim

“Finale” – Chris and Kim

***

RELATED EVENTS

+ “Soldiers’ Perspectives on the Vietnam War,” Feb. 19, Appleton Public Library, 225 N. Oneida St., Appleton. Book presentation, “Fly Until You Die,” 4-5 p.m. Panel discussion with veterans, 5-6:30 p.m.

A discussion led by Dr. Chia Youyee Vang is designed to learn more about soldiers’ perspectives of the Vietnam War. As author of “Fly Until You Die,” an oral history of the Hmong pilots in the Vietnam War, Dr. Vang will discuss the multiple perspectives she has heard through her research and talk with diverse local veterans about their similar and different experiences from this point in history, represented throughout the production of “Miss Saigon.”

+ “Asian Identity, Culture and Gender Dynamics,” Feb. 22, Long Cheng Market, 1800 S. Lawe St., Appleton.

Led by a panel of community members, the discussion is about the Asian community, its struggles, successes and challenging stereotypes throughout Northeastern Wisconsin and beyond. Inspired by “Miss Saigon,” moderator Dr. Pam Her will provide a thoughtful examination comparing and contrasting personal experiences to the show’s themes.

THE VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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