There’s more than one way to stage a hugely popular musical. Sure, Broadway may provide a convenient blueprint. But regional theater audiences should expect more than cheap imitation. They should want a show that is more personal. Or “local,” if you will.
Playhouse on the Square’s new production of “Miss Saigon” — the first regional theater staging of the 1991 hit that ran for a decade on Broadway — has that personal touch, bottling the enlarged pathos you’d expect on Broadway into a space that gives big, sweeping stories the urgency of a nightly newscast.
Making his Playhouse debut as both director and choreographer, Jordan Nichols grew up in the Playhouse wings, adapting to its technical and budget constraints. He also learned how to make his own artistic statement.
Broadway’s “Saigon” was known for its hyper-realistic elements (most famous was the life-size helicopter that swooped down upon the stage). This production’s softer, operatic palette works just as well. Considering that the story is based on Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” it’s an intuitive way to think about a musical set in the Vietnam War’s aftermath.
Adam Koch’s set design and John Horan’s lights are exquisitely interlaced, creating a variety of locations and atmospheres using shifting panels, scrims, backdrops and a few multipurpose set pieces. The scenery brings intimate moments into close-up by pushing the actors to the front of the stage, then moves out of the way for the two major dance numbers.
Under Nichols’ direction, the power of love takes precedence over the powers of destruction and cynicism. While there are some obvious political statements, such as the juxtaposition of Uncle Sam’s face with that of Ho Chi Minh, the love story has a certain timeless detachment from the political context.
Actor Nick Lerew plays an American soldier who visits a Saigon nightclub/brothel and spends the night with a 17-year-old “untouched” Vietnamese girl. Love quickly follows. He and actress Maya Naff (as Kim) both have light, clear voices that are harmonic soul mates. You’ll not hear a more touching sound than their duet “The Last Night of the World” wrapped around a lovely saxophone melody.
As the Americans make a hasty withdrawal from Saigon, Kim is left behind to fend off a former fiancé while living in poverty and secretly raising the soldier’s child.
Michael Detroit, as the Engineer, is a flesh-peddling master of ceremonies, singing of “The American Dream” in gratuitously capitalistic terms. He’s the bad guy everyone loves. Supporting actors — including Noby Edwards as the exotic dancer Gigi and Colin Morgan as John, a soldier-turned-children’s advocate — bring dramatic clout to the story.
“Miss Saigon” was the second big hit for the French musical theater collaborators Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil. Their first was the epic “Les Miserables,” which Playhouse will tackle for the first time in August.
If “Les Mis” is produced with the same kind of sensitivity, originality and technical cohesion that gives Playhouse’s “Miss Saigon” its strong emotional impact, it will be interesting to see which becomes harder to find in Memphis: tickets to the show or boxes of Kleenex.
Continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 2 at Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Tickets are $35-$40 adults, $22 seniors and students and $15 military. Call 901-726-4656.