BEVERLY – The whooshing chaos of the helicopter scene usually proves memorable in “Miss Saigon,’’ and that’s certainly true of the current North Shore Music Theatre production.
But it’s the intimacy of this “Miss Saigon’’ that moves you and stays with you afterward, not its flashy or whirlwind aspects, well executed though they are.
Director Richard Stafford and his superlative cast beautifully capture the human drama, excruciating dilemmas, and quiet devastation at the heart of “Miss Saigon,’’ a reworking of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,’’ transplanted to the Vietnam War.
The musical, a sung-through pop opera, tells the story of an orphaned Vietnamese bargirl named Kim, played with exquisite understatement by Jennifer Paz, and an American Marine named Chris, portrayed by Jason Forbach, who fall in love during the war’s final days, only to be cruelly separated during the fall of Saigon.
The handiwork of the “Les Miserables’’ team of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil (Richard Maltby Jr. collaborated with Boublil on the lyrics), “Miss Saigon’’ is riddled with some of the flaws that bedevil “Les Miz,’’ including an insistently melodramatic tone that borders on, and sometimes crosses over into, lugubriousness. When it comes to the geopolitics of the Vietnam War, “Miss Saigon’’ is simplistic.
But political and historical complexity is not exactly musical theater’s strong suit, is it? We ask musicals to engage our ears and our emotions and to make us care about what happens to the characters — sketchily developed though they often are — and on that score, “Miss Saigon’’ succeeds.
The question of whether Kim will ever see Chris again is a driving force in “Miss Saigon,’’ which shifts from 1975 to 1978 and from Vietnam to Atlanta to Bangkok. Despite the challenges presented by North Shore Music Theatre’s in-the-round configuration, the transitions in time, place, and mood are virtually seamless. That’s a testament to the dexterity of Stafford and his design team, including Jack Mehler, who handled sets and lighting, and Paula Peasley-Ninestein, who created the costumes. Music director Andrew Bryan and his orchestra also do stellar work in performing Schönberg’s delicate, ballad-heavy score.
Always hovering near the star-crossed lovers in “Miss Saigon’’ is a character known only as the Engineer. The proprietor of a sleazy bar, a pimp, a profiteer, and an all-around opportunist, the Engineer sees the romance between Kim and Chris as his ticket to America. The success of any “Miss Saigon’’ is heavily dependent on the caliber of the actor cast in this role. (He’s as crucial to “Miss Saigon’’ as the Emcee, whom he resembles in certain respects, is to “Cabaret.’’) In that regard, the NSMT production succeeds handsomely, because the Engineer is played by Francis Jue, a 2008 Obie Award winner for his performance in David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face.’’
Jue delivers an indelible portrait of a Mephistophelean hustler who doesn’t so much walk as slither, a cannily corrupt survivor adept at switching allegiances to fit the political moment in a country where power is always changing hands. “Give me francs or dollars or yen/ I’ll set up a game/ I know how it works,’’ he sings in “If You Want To Die in Bed.’’ Jue excels in one of the show’s best numbers, “The American Dream,’’ a jauntily cynical tribute to untrammeled capitalism, gleefully sung by the Engineer while dollar-bill-clutching members of the ensemble spin a star-spangled, red-white-and-blue arch about the stage. (Stafford, the director, also devised the choreography.)
The ensemble is strong overall, with exceptional performances in supporting roles by Rodrick Covington as a friend to Chris; Haley Swindal as (to say no more) another critical figure in Chris’s life; and Devin Ilaw as Thuy, the cousin to whom Kim was betrothed, who becomes an officer in the North Vietnamese army.
There’s an overall blandness to the character of Chris that Forbach is not quite able to surmount, but the actor rises to
key moments like that tumultuous helicopter scene, when the 1975 evacuation of Americans from Saigon leaves desperate Vietnamese behind, including, despite Chris’s frantic efforts, Kim.
As Kim, Paz occupies the emotional center of “Miss Saigon’’ with uncommon grace. Without overplaying a single moment, the actress wrings the heart, reminding us that the casualties of war can’t always be easily counted.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.