Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil are best known to American audiences as the creators of two blockbuster musicals — “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.”
The former is based on a massive, multi-part novel of the same name by French author Victor Hugo and the latter, on the opera “Madame Butterfly” by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. It, in turn, is based on a one-act play based on a short story and a French novel, all going to show that nothing is completely original.
For “Miss Saigon,” the sung-through (little or no spoken dialogue) musical which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Theatre, the setting was changed from early 20th century Japan to Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War (1975) and the United States (1978).
The basic elements of plot remain the same. Intentionally or unintentionally, the subplot in which thousands of natives scramble to escape the advance of an oppressive regime is very uneasily familiar today.
“Miss Saigon” is the third big musical of the SBCT 2015 season and the second in the high-domed Wilson Theatre. The mid-summer offering, “Fiddler on The Roof,” fared better al fresco in St. Patrick’s County Park. For a number of reasons, “Miss Saigon” goes the way of its indoor predecessors,.
There are several plusses in this production under the direction of Jewel Abram-Copenhaver.
First is the versatile set by scenic designer Jaycee Rohick, who has become one of SBCT’s major assets. It transfers quickly and, for the most part, quietly, from the Saigon bar-and-brothel owned by The Engineer (Mike Barnette) to the tiny room in which Kim (Shana
Dagny) and Chris (Lincoln Wright) find love, to the gates of the American Embassy as well as various locations in Saigon, Bangkok and Atlanta, Ga.
The fall of Saigon and its famed helicopter rescue is effective due to a generous use of stage fog and the sound of whirling propellers while the skeleton of a copter “lands” above the right balcony.
The use of projections of Saigon, its places and people, is helpful, if blurry, in echoing the frantic rush to escape the city before the arrival of the Viet Cong.
The orchestral track is a semi-plus in that it provides full instrumentation of the lush Schonberg score while most frequently overplaying the singers, both soloists and ensemble, and obscuring the all-important lyrics.
The major performance plus here is Dagny, a professional actress/singer from Chicago, who has played the role before and not only sings with emotion and warmth but conveys the changes in Kim as she goes from a timid innocent to a strong woman and a mother who literally gives everything for the sake of her child. Her characterization is moving and very believable.
Daniel Grey as Thuy, Kim’s Vietnamese fiancé turned officer in the North Vietnamese Army, and Ryan Clubine as John, the marine who buys Kim’s first night for his buddy Chris, deliver the best and strongest male voices and characterizations.
Anne Bomgaars is Ellen, Chris’ American wife. She also is vocally strong but, like the rest of the company females, suffers from very unfortunate costume choices. The men are safe in military uniforms although not sure they are circa 1975.
Like “Les Miz,” “Miss Saigon” is a big show and, to produce effectively, requires a big cast. Unfortunately this was not available here and the minimal result does little to enhance “The American Dream.”
“MISS SAIGON” plays through Oct. 25 in the Wilson Theatre in South Bend Civic Theatre, 215 W. Madison. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.SBCT.org.