Arts & Entertainment

Review: Story, spectacle of 'Miss Saigon' not to be missed

When all is said and done about the Vietnam War, it takes a remarkable work of art to move beyond controversy to the plane of individual tragedy brought about by war, where the process of understanding and healing can begin. Maya Lin's memorial Wall in Washington is such a work of art. So too, is the musical theater piece Miss Saigon, when it gets the haunting and committed production it was given by Richland Light Opera Company.

Masterfully directed by Jo Brodzinski, Miss Saigon is the culmination of 15 years of personal and professional preparation.

Warning: this is not Madame Butterfly lite, although it tells a similar story. It is a serious, 20th century reinterpretation of the themes of American imperialism, militarism, political and cultural conflict, the havoc war wreaks and the tragedy it brings to individual lives. It's also spectacular, has music that is more demanding and more rewarding than your typical Broadway show, and is presented at a level far beyond what is expected in local productions.

The first solo turn is given to Kelly Brown as Gigi, a classy dancer whose fine singing beautifully tells a sad story.

Cassandra Dicken as Kim, the orphaned, bar-girl recruit, has a young, powerful voice with a beautiful sound, which conveys her character's innocence and naiveté, and her stage presence is completely convincing. She even is able to hold our sympathy and attention when Isaiah Roddy-Wildenborg, as her 2-year-old son, appears later in Act One and does everything possible to steal the show.

Sam Purvine as Chris, the handsome young American Marine, has a lovely lyric tenor with enough power and stamina to convincingly convey the intensity of the emotional conflict which characterizes his role.

The "Engineer," master of ceremonies, narrator of the story, Greek chorus commenting on the action, and pimp, is brilliantly played by Geoff Elliot in the tradition of Mack-the-Knife in Threepenny Opera, and the MC in Cabaret. You'll hate the character but love the performance.

Gary Danielson does a bittersweet cameo role as a GI saxophonist in the sleazy "Dreamland" bar where the story begins. After Kim and Chris spend their first night together, Chris and his friend John, sung by Brian Foley, have a heated telephone conversation from opposite sides of the stage. This scene is then echoed in the following flashforward by a parallel scene when Kim and Ellen, Chris' wife, sung in a lovely, gentle contrasting soprano by Charlotte Miley, each tell, unheard by the other, of their love and concern for Chris. The movable sets and flies make rapid change possible and enhance the intensity of the show.

Lito Ines is officiously evil and harsh as Thuy, Kim's jilted prospective husband who becomes a commissar.

John opens the second act with a beautifully sung depiction of the plight of the Bui-Doi. The stories of the half-American, half-Vietnamese Bui-Doi children, and the stories of the boat-people, those who got to America and those who never did, are fast receding from memory. This musical demands that we try to think these things through again.

The complex and demanding orchestration is brilliantly played by an ensemble of regional players, under the direction of Justin Raffa. The music is thru-composed, no spoken dialogue, by the same French-English team behind Les Miserables. The music and production give no quarter to 19th century grand opera; it has complexity and spectacle -- you have to see the helicopter to believe it. This 20th century masterwork uses the rock ballad to tell an old story.

If you are open to being moved by intense and masterfully produced musical theater, you should not miss this show.

*Chuck Eaton plays bass trombone with the Walla Walla Symphony and has played with the Mid-Columbia and Oregon East orchestras and the CBC Jazz Ensemble. He's also an avid supporter and observer of the arts in our region.