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Aaron Ramey and Dina Lynne Morishita
as the war-torn lovers in Miss Saigon
(Photo: Jerry Dalia)
Presenting a revival of a show that closed on Broadway less than two years ago is not easy -- especially when that show is something of a Broadway legend, one of the major "pop operas" that dominated musical theater in the 1980s. So with Miss Saigon still fresh in the memory of many musical fans, the Paper Mill Playhouse's decision to open its 2002-2003 season with this show is, to say the least, ambitious. The staging has to be true to the original yet new enough to inspire theatergoers to revisit something so recent. Paper Mill's production succeeds with lavish, colorful sets and a cast of strong singers, though the musical itself is far from magical.

For those who haven't caught up with Miss Saigon as yet: Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's show brings the story of Puccini's Madame Butterfly to Vietnam, with the action beginning just weeks before the American evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Chris (Aaron Ramey), an American G.I., falls for Kim (Dina Lynne Morishita), a young Vietnamese woman from the countryside who has just arrived in Saigon and escapes life in a whorehouse by moving in with him. After the couple shares a few love songs, the scene rapidly changes to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) three years later. Having been abandoned by Chris during the American evacuation, Kim now dreams of (and, to some extent, obsesses over) his return to her and their young son. Offering to help Kim, but only to further his own plans, is the Engineer (played sinisterly by Kevin Gray), Kim's former boss at the whorehouse. Chris ultimately does return to find Kim -- bringing his wife, Ellen (Kate Baldwin), with him.

Kevin Gray sings "The American Dream"
(Photo: Jerry Dalia)
Visually, the production is stunning. From the seedy nightclub in Saigon to the streets of the "Red Light District" of Bangkok, bright colors and imposing scenery set the mood for a show that deals with forces beyond any individual's control. One particularly impressive scene is the celebration of the Third Anniversary of the Reunification of Vietnam, during which the Vietnamese parade across the stage a huge, red dragon (a symbol of North Vietnam) that eventually conquers a paper tiger (a symbol of the American forces). Darren Lee's choreography adds to the power of the sequence. Another scene vividly brought to life is "The American Dream," the Engineer's vision of all the wondrous things he'll find if he reaches America. The one thing the designers should have avoided is their recreation of the famous helicopter landing from the Broadway production with a smaller (though still sizable) helicopter. Perhaps Paper Mill was trying to bring back the magic of the moment on Broadway, but it just seems like an unnecessary imitation.

The young cast members shine mostly through their powerful voices, which are necessary for carrying a show performed entirely in song. Morishita communicates Kim's innocence, love, and pain with a strong, emotional voice. As Chris, Ramey also sings very well, though his acting is often too melodramatic. In fact, excessive melodrama is Miss Saigon's greatest weakness; at times, the emotions on display are so heightened that the show becomes almost a parody of itself. While many of the songs ("The Last Night of the World," "Why, God, Why," and "I'd Give My Life For You") are musically captivating, their effect is largely lost on the audience because the characters' emoting is so far over the top.

Miss Saigon may be a Broadway legend, but its regional life will be somewhat limited unless it is always given the kind of strong production now on view at Paper Mill. Without an exceptionally talented cast and impressive scenery to hold an audience's interest, the show could easily fall apart. Relying on a helicopter to attract an audience may not have been such a good idea after all...

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