A scene from <i>Miss Saigon</i>.
A scene from Miss Saigon.
(© courtesy of Signature Theatre)
A confession: As a twenty-something living in Manhattan in the early '90s, I second-acted Miss Saigon on Broadway nearly a dozen times. What a shame it would have been for someone to have tried that for Signature Theatre's reimagination of the musical, playing now through October 6, as its first act was far more engaging.

Eric Schaeffer directs the production, which follows an American G.I. and a young Vietnamese girl whose unlikely storybook love is torn apart by the tumultuous fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War.

At first, Diana Huey seems a bit too worldly to play the naïve Vietnamese orphan Kim who must turn to a life as a bar girl to survive. It doesn't take long to put her age out of your mind, however, when she manages both the sweetness and vulnerability that Kim needs in songs such as "The Transaction" and especially "Sun and Moon." As the play progresses, Huey captures all of Kim's emotional rollercoaster of finding love, being abandoned, and forced again into a life of "performing." Huey delivers the standout act-one closer "I'd Give My Life for You" with as much depth as the amazing Lea Salonga accomplished on the Great White Way.

A chief problem with this particular mounting is that Gannon O'Brien, as disenchanted marine Chris Scott, is no match for Huey. Chris is supposed to be a somewhat dashing hero but his portrayal hereseems uncharismatic and he is not the Man of War that the character calls for. There also seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the two leads, and while O'Brien is vocally strong, the chemistry in "Last Night of the World" does not pack the emotional punch it should. To be fair, O'Brien had less than a week of rehearsal for the part after Jason Michael Evans pulled a muscle in his throat and had to bow out of the production.

As the scandalous Engineer, Thom Sesma finds the perfect balance of humor and darkness as he pledges allegiance to Uncle Ho as he secretly yearns for Uncle Sam and his American Dream. With a lascivious grin and plenty of asides to the audience, Sesma steals much of musical's focus away from the love story that is supposedly driving the plot. Much of the story in act one is told through the eyes of Kim and the Engineer, and both Huey and Sesma make it a ride on which we want to continue.

Act two is a different story. As expected, gone is the infamous helicopter landing on stage, as this is a scaled-down production from the original mounting of the Tony-winning musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. But it is not the lack of effects that does this production in; in fact, the lights and sounds used to simulate a chopper are quite effective. With the focus changing to Chris and his life since returning from Vietnam, O'Brien and supporting players such as Chris Sizemore, as Chris's Army buddy John, and Erin Driscoll, as Chris's stateside wife, Ellen, can't carry over the emotional punch expected.

Driscoll in particular seems out of place with a distracting wig and a too over-the-top display of feelings. Those familiar with the musical will be disappointed that the powerful "Now That I've Seen Her" has been replaced with the dull ballad "Maybe," and it is hard to understand why Chris is with Ellen in the first place.

Overall, the ensemble is strong in voice, with a nod to Cheryl Daro who delivers a heartbreaking rendition of "The Movie in My Mind." Sizemore is a better actor than singer but is believable as the friend who wants to help. I've always felt Thuy, the militant cousin to whom Kim is betrothed, is the most difficult character to cast in Miss Saigon, as the role requires a powerful baritone with a menacing viciousness. Though a fine singer, Christopher Mueller seems more like a Saturday Night Live caricature and can't muster the seriousness or intensity required of the antagonist.

Special props to Adam Koch and his set design. The entire theater is decked out with walls of steel fencing, a huge parachute, and war paraphernalia that makes it seem like the audience is immersed in the dark Vietnamese world the cast inhabited. A tight 15-piece orchestra led by Gabriel Mangiante is also strong.

Despite lacking portrayals from supporting players, the performances by Huey and Sesma make Signature's Miss Saigon a winning production. Just be sure not to arrive late and miss out on all that the first act delivers.