‘Miss Saigon’ at Signature Theatre by Amanda Gunther

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FOUR STARS
The heat is on in Saigon! It’s the last night of the world and it’s burning up fast at Signature Theatre as they blast open their 2013/2014 season with the rarely produced Tony Award-Winning Musical, Miss Saigon. Directed by Eric Schaeffer with Musical Direction by Gabriel Mangiante, conducting 15 excellent musicians, this tragically beautiful tale of life at the end of the Vietnam war in the city of Saigon is erupting to life with one of the most epically stunning female leads in the area.

Kim (Diana Huey, center) and the cats of 'Miss Saigon.' Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Kim (Diana Huey, center) and the cats of ‘Miss Saigon.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Visually remarkable, Scenic Designer Adam Koch doesn’t just create a set upon which the show can unfold, he creates a fully dynamic, all-encompassing atmospheric experience that lures the audience into fall of Saigon. Entering the theatre space involves a trek through warplane wreckage and jungle netting; while mist clouds your vision and the serenity of the Vietnamese jungle underscores your journey. Sound Designer Matt Rowe sharply punctuates this soundscape with the harsh rumble of fighter planes and helicopters soaring high overhead. The experience is dazzling and makes the intimate world of Saigon occur right before your eyes.

For as dazzling as the scenic approach is, with its complexity when it comes to special effects, especially during numbers like “Kim’s Nightmare” and “The American Dream,” is as underwhelming as the Costume Design is, provided by Frank Labovitz. While the majority of the characters are presented in either GI greens or war-torn peasant clothing there are outfits that feel as if they should pop and simply don’t. This happens frequently throughout the production with the ladies of the nightclub, both in Saigon and later in Bangkok, even when they don their formal dress attire for Kim’s ‘celebration’ the colors are muted and get lost in the rest of the show’s incredible spectacle.

Choreographer Karma Camp juxtaposes the two realities that are contained inside of the show quite well against one another. The rigid structure of the bellicose soldiers marching to the tune of a new regime in “The Morning of the Dragon” creates a drastic contrast when compared to the flashy but equally strict showgirl style dancing witnessed during “The American Dream.” Camp’s best work comes out of these two numbers, particularly “The Morning of the Dragon,” where she infuses heavy stomping on loud metal grates into her work to really drive home the militant feel of the change that has barreled down upon the land.

While Director Eric Schaeffer’s execution of “Kim’s Nightmare” is a phenomenal experience to behold, many of the characters and other nuances of the play are left feeling underdone or confused. This happens most frequently with The Engineer (Thom Sesma) and with Chris. The character of the engineer lends itself to a unctuous shady creature that is meant to rule the show, but in this production the character is caught halfway between playing scenes and songs for truth and pandering to the audience for the laugh.

Sesma holds back until his final number “The American Dream” which treats the audience to some really impressive powerhouse belts of sound, and this would be fine except for the fact that when he is singing in his earlier numbers like “Opening” and “The Deal” it is very difficult to see him. Schaeffer’s lack of guidance for this character’s direction ultimately leaves Sesma half-presenting and half-playing in the moment, peddling his song “The American Dream” as a last ditch effort rather than really selling the grandeur that the number could be. Sesma, to his credit, does have a great deal of grounded gritty moments that live up to the character’s smarmy nature.

Chris (Gannon O’Brien) has a technically flawless sound when it comes to singing his solos and duets, but again is faced with a lack of general direction in his character. O’Brien has broad strokes of emotions in his songs though they often feel one dimensional, a bit like Schaeffer assigned a singular emotion to each moment he sings. This happens in “Why God, Why?” which is beautiful but only shows us frustration.

Kim (Diana Huey, foreground) and Christopher Mueller (Thuy). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Kim (Diana Huey, foreground) and Christopher Mueller (Thuy). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

O’Brien’s duets with Kim (Diana Huey) are stunning, their voices twinning in such a way that the music melts your heart. Their innocent love transcends the lyrics of “Sun and Moon” with Huey bringing the intensity that this song requires in her angelic but powerful voice. “Last Night of the World” radiates such passion from Huey that it sounds as if it’s the last song of the world. While this is their main duet, the chemistry between them, at first nubile and delicate, is consistently burning at full force.

This production introduces the new song “Maybe” written for Ellen (Erin Driscoll). The song, while deep in its meaning is left sounding hollow as Driscoll didn’t emote during its performance. The opening lines are quite low and Driscoll struggled with the lower range. Her character as a whole looks picture-perfect on the arm of O’Brien’s character, but lacks emotional depth in general and is overall a let down. John (Chris Sizemore) is another character that falls short when it comes to impressing the audience. During “Bui Doi” John (Chris Sizemore)’s voice sounded uncomfortable in the higher range and he was really struggling to hit those notes. Sizemore, does however, have a strong fraternal bond with Chris, well reflected during “Telephone Sequence” where his vocals are pristine and his emotions are clear.

Standing out in the mist is the incredibly talented Christopher Mueller as Thuy. With a grounded and commanding presence from the moment he storms the scene, Mueller delivered each sung line with a vehemence that nearly blew Kim out of the water. Huey held her own fiercely against this raging storm of tenacious sound in the confrontation “Thuy’s Death,” which really boils down to a raw battle for vocal and emotional dominance. Mueller appeared in Act II during “Kim’s Nightmare” as a grotesque and disturbingly haunting apparition. His presence was ghastly, his singing frighteningly divine, and packed with tense emotions.

Diana Huey (Kim) and Joel Chen (Tam). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Diana Huey (Kim) and Joel Chen (Tam). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Diana Huey as Kim is the most grounded and fully-present performer on stage. Never missing a moment and living in the world of Vietnam from 1975 in Saigon straight through 1978 in Bangkok, Huey is a dynamic sensation that carries the world of this show on her shoulders. Vocally incomparable, emotionally fulfilling, and deeply satisfying for the audience, Huey gives a stellar performance. Her physical, facial, and vocal expressivity know no bounds and her ability to hit every note with pitch-perfect accuracy is stunning. Ferocious in all that she does to save Tam during “Thuy’s Death” she sends chills up your spine. Watching the transformation that ripples through her character like a shockwave as this number comes to a close is truly harrowing. Huey creates an agonizing moment of harrowing tragedy during “Kim’s Nightmare” and watching this brings tears to your eyes. Her vocal prowess is second to none and she owns every song she sings, particularly “I Still Believe,” where all of her hopes come flowing freely from deep inside her heart. “Chris is Here” is a burst of sheer elation, every pent up frustration, confusing moment, and dash of fear she’s encountered erupting into a moment of radiant joy that changes the entire atmosphere of the play, until it comes crashing down songs later in “Kim and Ellen.” Huey is truly a sensational phenomenon, bringing balance, emotional clarity, grounded presence, and a thrilling exuberance to this production.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Miss Saigon plays through September 29, 2013 in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre— 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.