Theater-goers who have been pining for a revival of "Miss Saigon," the musical that gave the creators of "Les Miserables" a follow-up hit that ran for a decade in London and New York, will be happy to know that Signature Theatre has obliged.
For anyone wondering why a great company would pour so much energy and resources into a work of such epic banality, this new, intermittently impressive production is a little less thrilling. We naysayers appear to be in a minority, I hasten to add. Even before last weekend's official opening, the run was extended.
I had thought that the musical, which aims for operatic heights by grafting a "Madama Butterfly"-like plot onto the Vietnam War, would somehow benefit from the passage of time, and benefit from a pared down staging at Signature.
Now I'm thinking that there's so little weight to this Cameron Mackintosh-generated show that it needs all the dimension, spectacle and full-blown orchestrations it can get -- anything to distract from the unconvincing parts in the plot and the long stretches of unimaginative writing by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg.
His well-worn pop style, which broke into memorable flights of melody occasionally in "Les Miserables," mostly stays in the same dull gear in "Miss Saigon." Many a song meanders through predictable harmonic territory and, worse, leads to a forced vocal peak. And when Schonberg tries to conjure up Asian music, the result can be cringe-inducing.
The one fully inspired number, "The American Dream," sounds as if it wandered in from another show -- "Cabaret." But at least it has musical, verbal and theatrical spark. The rest of the work could use much more of that.
Even having such a distinguished lyricist as Richard Maltby Jr. involved (collaborating with Alain Boublil, who wrote the original French lyrics) does not prevent words in this popera from turning astoundingly trite every few minutes.
Does no one else find it just a little tired to hear someone sing "Don't touch my boy ... he's my only joy"? There's a whole mess of rhymes on that dreary level.
It may be that I would care less about the pedestrian material in this over-ambitious, over-blown piece in a performance that sizzled across the board, filled with singing actors capable of rising far above the material to make something real and affecting out of it. That didn't quite happen the night I was at Signature Theatre.
In the Butterfly-like role of Kim, who escapes from sleazy nightclub work with a smitten American solider named Chris, only to be abandoned as the Americans pull out of Saigon, Diana Huey was certainly proficient.
But there was something rather generic about her portrayal. She did, however, reveal more nuance in the final tragic scene, when Kim, now a mother with a half-American son, realizes that Chris will not be hers again.
Huey's singing was generally steady, except when straining for high notes. The other principals likewise struggled with the score's vocal demands and ended up doing an awful lot of screaming. (Given the scale of the theater, too bad no one opted to go for a subtler vocal style all around. It might have benefited the music considerably.)
The fairly relentless pushing by the singers may explain how the actor originally in the role of Chris pulled a throat muscle and had to bow out before opening night.
Understudy Gannon O'Brien sounded like he was pushing his voice to the max when I heard him. He may settle into the music more firmly as the run continues; he might settle into the character more naturally, too, and develop stronger chemistry with Huey.
As the slimy Engineer, who manipulates Kim during and after the war, Thom Sesma was fully and incisively into the role, giving the whole production a lift. But he sang hoarsely much of the time, and that cut into his effectiveness.
Chris Sizemore did a smooth job as Chris' well-intentioned buddy, John. Erin Driscoll made Ellen, Chris' wife, about as sympathetic as possible ("Maybe," a newly written song for the character, reveals no fresh burst of musical inspiration).
As the thuggish Thuy, Christopher Mueller performed at a fiercely strident, comically cliched level. The rest of the performers went through their paces in vibrant form.
The Signature production, directed by Eric Schaeffer, reveals plenty of visual imagination. The audience is surrounded with designer Adam Koch's scenic elements that evoke a war-torn world, and telling details emerge onstage as scene after scene unfolds seamlessly.
OK, the big Fall of Saigon moment doesn't have a helicopter -- the prop that served the 'Phantom'-chandelier function in the original musical. But you weren't really expecting that from a regional theater, were you? The scene still comes off with sufficient drama.
Chris Lee's lighting is terrifically moody throughout, and Karma Camp's choreography, especially for the aggressive march of the communist soldiers, comes with a real kick. Gabriel Mangiante conducts a polished 15-musician ensemble.
This revival has the potential to develop more cohesion and force, but I'm not convinced that "Miss Saigon" will ever turn out to be a profound work of musical theater.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun