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'Miss Saigon' demonstrates renewed power in Bushnell Center stop

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National tour of "Miss Saigon" at the Bushnell in Hartford

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The epic musical "Miss Saigon" is often included, in that group of super hi-tech musicals derided for their emphasis on expensive and audience-awing special effects that dwarf the music and sacrifice a human story. In looking at the very admirable revival on display this week at Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, that judgment seems primarily due to a relatively straightforward stage illusion of a helicopter landing and taking off from the grounds of the American Embassy during the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

Yes, it is an impressive image, full of flashing lights, intensive sounds, a lot of movement and yet another soaring moment from the Claude-Michel Schonberg musical score. But in all honesty it's just a brief albeit climactic moment in the musical's second act, but it doesn't negate the tragic, unbearingly human tale at the production's core and the melodic opera-like score that captures an audience's interest and spins the story forward quickly and smoothly.

These human elements are appropriately stressed in this co-production that originated at the Kansas City Starlight Theatre and is being coproduced by the Bushnell, Nederlander Detroit, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn. The director, Fred Hanson, is no stranger to the work Schonberg and Alain Boublil, who is responsible for the lyrics for "Miss Saigon" along with Richard Maltby, Jr. Hanson has directed several productions of Schonberg-Boublil's "Les Miserables" as well as served on the original Broadway productions of both musicals.

This is a somewhat scaled down version of "Miss Saigon," mostly for touring purposes, that nonetheless captures all the power of the score while taking advantage of every opportunity to feature extensive dance numbers and spotlight the spectacular ballads created for its six principal singers. Michael Ananaia's flexible scenery, Robert Fletcher's vast array of western, Asian, military and ritualistic costumes and Kirk Bookman's fast-moving and diverse lighting and shadowing effects assure that this production remains visually attracting and spellbinding at every moment.

Yes, certain accommodations have been needed to be made for the tour, but also to allow the creators to put their own distinctive imprint on the production. I am particularly referring to veteran Broadway choreograhper Baayork Lee's ability to create dances that differentiate this production from the original Broadway version, especially in the show's two extensive production numbers. "The Morning of the Dragon," a military-ritual mashup that celebrates the third anniversary of reunification of North and South Vietnam and the renaming of Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City, is less a frighteningly-coordinated red flag routine full of defiance and triumph than a genuinely human celebratory observance that also includes infusions of familiar Asian acrobatics and more traditional musical dance movements. Similarly, Lee and Hanson re-stage the show's eleven o'clock number, that features the evening's de facto narrator, the Eurasian Engineer, as a cynically celebratory look at his anticipated future as part of "The American Dream," rather than as a greedy, lust-fueled sarcastic number that found the Engineer limning making passionate love to that avatar of American success, the Detroit-made automobile.

These changes temper some of the resilient anger and disgust about Vietnam that lingered even in the production's original New York run back in the late 1980's, feelings that are not only a little more distant now, but have arguably been superseded by feelings toward more recent actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this company had no way to know that their tour would coincide with a broad national conversation on intervention in Syria, which could stir up certain audience members' memories and be actually more relevant than expected to a contemporary audience.

One thing this production did not change and that is Connecticut's William David Brohn's remarkable orchestrations, that allow Schonberg's music to soar and resonate throughout the evening in a mostly entirely sung-through production. The 18-member orchestra under Kevin Stites does the score proud.

As do Hanson's principals, none more so than Manna Nichols' Kim, the Madama Butterfly-inspired main character of the story. Nichols can project Kim's naïve vulnerability while simultaneously stressing the character's ability to remain a survivor while trying to maintain an integrity within an environment of prostitution and drugs. She has a marvelous singing voice that, while not of the calibre of original production's legendary Lea Solonga, has a sweetly distinct sound of its own that is capable of conveying a variety of emotion.

After a rather inauspicious start, Orville Mendoza ultimately shines as the Engineer, introduced as a pimp at the Club where the virginal Kim arrives in Saigon, but who reveals himself as a cynical, wheeler-dealer who is not quite as adept at mastering Saigon's underworld as he believes he is. His character gradually grows on the audience, particularly as he sacrifices various questionable opportunities to help Kim escape from some of the difficult situations in which she finds herself. While Mendoza hints that he may himself be in love with Kim and that he is willing to use her to get a ticket out of town, he also makes clear that he can also be putty in her hands. He possesses a fine voice that serves him well on his showstopper "The American Dream."

Charlie Brady, who has the potential to be a rising handsome Broadway leading man, does fine in the role of Chris, the American marine who has seen too many horrors in Vietnam and unexpectedly finds a moment of solace and rescue in the arms of Kim. His welcome tenor makes his ballads soar and he and Nichols acquit themselves notably in their numerous duets. He conveys Chris's desperation over losing Kim during the fall of Saigon in a bit too much of an overwrought manner, although that is more the fault of the book that wants to sympathize his character and draw out the number for dramatic purposes.

Nkrumah Gatling is fine as Chris's friend John who tries to look out for his downward spiraling friend in Saigon and who later helps Chris learn about the whereabouts of the long lost Kim and the son she has borne in the interim. He has a great ballad at the opening of the Second Act in which he leads an international chorus of individuals committed to the cause of the "bui-doi," those children of American soldiers left behind in Vietnam who have been orphaned, mistreated and regarded as less than human by the victorious North Vietnamese.

Meggie Cansler has the somewhat difficult role of Chris's new American wife, who enjoys a lovely duet with Nichols, "I Still Believe," but serves as the spoiler in Kim's long-held overly romantic dream of a rescue by Chris. Rona Figueroa, as one of the Engineer's prostitutes, has a dramatic duet with Nichols near the top of the show, called "The Movie in My Mind" that ruefully depicts how the characters' dreams, no matter how unrealistic, indeed help them survive the wartime horrors of Vietnam.

"Miss Saigon" was a juggernaut of a hit on Broadway and did enjoy a significant life on the road in the years after its initial success. It's not been revived in recent years, but now there's word that a totally new approach will be developed for an upcoming West End revival in London, and a new production is also playing at the well-respected Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. It may be time for a new generation raised on two Iraq wars and a lengthy excursion into Afghanistan, as well as accustomed to hearing sabres rattled over Iran and Syria, to become familiar with this earlier American humuliation in order to better understand world attitudes to our country and the threats of the "constant war preparedness" economy.

"Miss Saigon" runs through Sunday, September 22 at the Bushnell. For more information and to order tickets, call the Bushnell Box Office at 860.987.5900 or visit www.bushnell.org

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