Through March 29
There are two types of musical theater lovers: Those who love Miss Saigon and those who don’t. For some, Miss Saigon is an enchanting, tragic romance; for others, it’s overblown, overproduced and reduces both Madame Butterfly and the Vietnam War to a couple of set pieces and a rhyming dictionary.
I enjoy musical theater but I’m not a connoisseur; as a result, my perspective falls somewhere in the middle. In N.C. Theatre’s production at Memorial Auditorium, there were a few genuinely thrilling parts and a few others where I found myself wincing in annoyanceonly to hear the person next to me sniffling and wiping their eyes with a tissue.
On a technical level, this is perhaps one of the most impressive productions ever seen at Memorial; as a work of storytelling, its ultra-earnestness and sometimes-painful lyrics are tailor-made for a wide audience, but leave others cold. The tale of Miss Saigon, by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., is by now well-known; set against the backdrop of the fall of Saigon, a 17-year-old prostitute named Kim (Jennifer Paz from the show’s first national tour) finds love with the earnest G.I. Chris (Eric Kunze, reprising his role from Broadway and the first national tour, and who was last seen locally in N.C. Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar). Circumstances separate the lovers, who reunite years later in a world that has changed. There’s also a helicopter and a pink Cadillac on stage.
The standout here is Broadway veteran Kevin Gray as the wily pimp The Engineer, who gives a comic-yet-desperate spin to his role; at times, I cared more about whether he’d escape Vietnam than Kim. His performance of the satirical ditty “The American Dream” is the evening’s highlight. This ode to the on-stage Cadillac is an old-school Broadway number with excellent choreography and fancy footwork. The rest of the cast does well, though Jennifer Shrader occasionally seems a bit stiff in the underwritten part of Ellen, Chris’s girl back home. Technical credits by director Richard Stafford and choreographer Marc Oka are excellent.
This is a huge hit for N.C. Theatre; the packed house at the performance I attended delivered a standing ovation and shed plenty of tears. Perhaps you will cry, too. Or maybe you’ll be one of those who wonders how many words could possibly rhyme with “Saigon” or “Engineer.” It all depends on what kind of musical theater lover you are.