REVIEW – Miss Saigon – Palo Alto Players

Miss Saigon is a show that for any production team is, at its core, the very definition of ambitious. It’s a big show, not just logistically, physically and technically, but emotionally. It’s freaking huge. The stakes at every moment are impossibly high (insert visual of me indicating with my hand over my head as to just how high) and demands that each and every character, principal, featured or ensemble, be at an emotional 11 from first to last note. This doesn’t allow for a lot room for mistakes or for a tremendous amount of variance which can be a huge challenge for 2 ½ hours of musical theater with hardly any dialogue that isn’t sung. With that being said, it’s a good thing that Palo Alto Players fully understood the enormity of the task at hand and took on this production with some fine talent, solid directing and creative design in their corner.

While there were several highlights of the production, perhaps the most striking to me was the chemistry between our main characters Kim and Chris, which was brilliant. I’ve seen a lot of stage making out in my day, I’ve even participated in some myself, and so often the romantic scenes end up feeling manufactured, the actors inhibitions too apparent or the technical direction resulting in an unnatural and literally staged session. I don’t want to play the creepy critic here, but it kind of looked like they were really into it. That’s not only a good thing, but in this show it’s essential. Just like Romeo and Juliet, we need to feel that the connection between the two is an intense life and death kind of attraction in able to believe it can be so immediate and force the plot dominos in motion. Our couple pulled their unique relationship off spectacularly. Aside from their ability to appear physically comfortable/down right passionate with each other (in various stages of undress mind you) they are both vocal powerhouses. I mean eye-rolling “that’s ridiculous” kind of singing. Range, stamina, emotional control, hands down they make the weaker scenes and songs stronger and kill the signature awesomeness that has allowed this show to have such a long life.

Also in that category of mesmerizing was The Engineer. Good god the animation and commitment to this role (which really is the best written of the whole show and had a very high bar set by Jonathan Pryce on Broadway) were out of this world. He nails it emotionally, vocally and with a twisted, sympathetic humor so gripping, even in the characters darkest moments when you think maybe it would be misplaced. He has the chops technically as well as that special master storyteller quality that invites you inside his head and lets you experience every layer of subtext between the scripted lines. He owns every moment he is on stage. You’ve seen him before most likely and you’ll see him again. Versatile and professional, he’s one to watch for beyond this stellar performance.

Cheers also to John and Ellen who make the most of smaller roles and do their less exciting solos justice. The ensemble is hard-working with a lot to do in this show and while I wasn’t over the moon about the choreography or their voices all the time, there were standouts among the crowd who remained committed and emotionally invested in all their roles and a number here and there that showcased some great harmony.

The staging is quite pretty and there are a thousand picture perfect snap shots throughout that are especially effective in combination with great lighting design and costuming. The orchestra was tight for the most part and thankfully well-balanced volume-wise so none of the amazing voices got trumped. The set designer addresses the enormous challenges of this show as well as could be expected. It’s an aesthetically pleasing, admirable result for sure, while still unable to completely triumph over SUCH a tall order with a fraction of the space (on and off stage) to fully execute visual perfection.

For all its strengths, this show has a lot of inconsistencies and when the highs are so high the lows stick out painfully. Part of that is the show itself as there are numbers that seem to not really move the plot forward and certainly evoked more than a couple “can we just fast forward” moments.

One needs only to see the opening scene to be inspired to design (or purchase if they exist) a wireless mic pack that is thinner and less bulky than a walkie-talkie. The costuming real estate in the opening scene is sparse and these mic packs had limited places they could be “stuck”. It was not an especially appealing look. That distraction, coupled with some ensemble members who are not as natural with the required sexuality of the opening numbers made for some uncomfortable tableau, forcing the audience to work a bit harder to buy into the plot at first.

I’d find a seat halfway back, as sitting too close could potentially be a disservice to this production. There was a speaker hum that was killing me stage left throughout most of the show and whether avoidable or intentional, I personally can’t stand seeing stage hands on stage or in the wings during a scene and there were several of those moments in both acts. The big “special” effect in act two will likely work a bit better further away too, I didn’t buy it from row C, but it might read more impressive from further back.

All in all, you’ll want to see this show for the outstanding performances. You really shouldn’t miss those even if the music in the show gets a bit repetitive and the theater ultimately might just be too small for such an enormous production. Overall the show wins more than not with 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a complex show that is graced with some extremely bright stars. Miss Saigon plays through May 12th at the Lucie Stern Community Theatre in Palo Alto.

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