Friday, March 29, 2013

Manatee Players elevate the trite "Miss Saigon"

   If you've been following events leading up to Thursday's opening of "Miss Saigon," the Manatee Players' first show at their new Manatee Performing Arts Center, there are two things you're probably most curious about.
   The first is the theater itself, and it absolutely lives up to all the hype.
The Manatee Performing Arts Center
   It's a phenomenal place to see a show, with comfortable seats, perfect sight lines, good acoustics and sensational technical possibilities. Almost every regional professional theater company in the United States should be envious.
   The other thing you might be wondering about is the helicopter. The gimmick of "Miss Saigon," ever since its days on Broadway, has been a helicopter landing on stage in the second act. It's by far the most interesting thing that happens in the show, so it's almost impossible to do the show without the helicopter.
   In the Manatee Players' production, the illusion of a helicopter landing is quite credible. Director Rick Kerby promised it would look and feel like a helicopter, and it does.
   So then, onto the production itself. It's a wondrous thing to behold, with breathtaking lighting by Joseph P. Oshry, beautiful sets by Marc Lalosh and costumes by David Walker and Georgina Willmott. There's nothing in the look of this production that wouldn't be at home in a Broadway tour. (And in fact, a couple of people who had seen "Miss Saigon" on Broadway and on a Broadway tour said this production was better.)
   The only technically lacking aspect was the inconsistent sound. Some voices sounded muddled, body mics interfered with each other and in one ensemble scene, one singer's voice drowned out all the others. On a few occasions the very good six-piece orchestra -- which sounded much larger -- drowned out the cast.
   And that cast is generally terrific, especially considering most of them are very young and the show is extremely demanding, vocally and dramatically.
   "Miss Saigon" is, of course, a reworking of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," transposed to the last days of the Vietnam War. A GI named Chris has an affair with a girl named Kim who has reluctantly become a prostitute. When he comes back to America, he still thinks about her, but he eventually marries. Then he learns Kim has had his child and goes back to Vietnam to find her. Kim has been waiting for him through the years and is devastated to find out Chris is married.
   Holly Rizzo is marvelous as Kim. She wields a beautiful voice and her singing is overflowing with emotion. The other standout performance -- though a much smaller one -- is Channing Weir as Chris's wife. (She will not be in the role in all performances.) Her one solo song, "Now That I've Seen Her," is one of the best musical moments in the show.
   Omar Montes is also very strong as the Engineer, the show's flashiest role.
   The cast as a whole sings well and the dancing, choreographed by Kerby, is especially impressive.
   One problem, though: "Miss Saigon" is not a good show. The melodies are haphazard, the lyrics are 12 pounds of cliches in a 10-pound bag. The same team that wrote "Les Miserables" wrote this show, but it feels as though they didn't put a lot of effort into it.
   Now that Manatee Players finally have a theater worthy of their talents, it's exciting to imagine what they'll be able to do when they tackle worthy material.
   Details: March 28 to April 14 at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. West. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Most shows are already sold out; others have limited availability. Tickets: $26-$36. Information: or 941-748-5875.

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