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Review: Powerful 'Miss Saigon' offers moving story

| Thursday, June 10, 2010

The good stories are the ones that endure long after the headlines fade.

It's now been 35 years since the last American helicopter winged its way skyward from the U.S. Embassy compound in Vietnam.

Yet Claude-Michel Schonberg, Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boulblil's musical "Miss Saigon" continues to stir emotions that are raw, painful and dramatic.

Set between 1975 and 1978 in the chaos and aftermath of the Vietnam War, "Miss Saigon" is a contemporary adaptation of Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly".

Both stories focus on a young Western military man who falls in love with an young Asian woman, then departs unaware that she is carrying their child. In both cases the man detaches and goes on with his life while the young woman dreams of his return. When he does return, sacrifices must be made to ensure the child will have a better life.

The creators of "Miss Saigon" up the ante by making all of the principal characters good but flawed people caught in extraordinary circumstances and doing the best they can.

There are virtually no villains in director and choreographer Barry Ivan's balanced production for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera that opened Tuesday night. It's always clear what every character wants and why it's crucial.

Michael Anania's scenic designs lack the glitz and pizzazz of the Broadway and national touring productions but move the action forward with seamless efficiency.

The cast benefits two primary performers who have played their parts numerous times, which has given them time to create depth and nuance in their performances.

Kevin Gray as The Engineer, is a cynical but resilient, ultimately likeable manipulator who survives whatever adversity throws at him. It's Gray's fifth performance in the role which he played at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera in 2003. You find yourself rooting for him in his two big numbers "If You Want to Die in Bed" and "The American Dream."

Ma-Anne Dionisio who plays Kim, the young woman at the center of the drama, also appeared in the 2003 Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production of "Miss Saigon" as well as originated in the Canadian premiere of the musical in Toronto plus the Australian premiere production and the London Production. You really believe her when she sings "I'd Give My Life for You" to her young son toward the end of the second act.

A strong, young and energetic ensemble of 24 performers enliven the show's bar scenes and big production numbers such as "The Morning of the Dragon," though the occasional Vietnamese citizen creates a distraction when played by a blond Westerner.

A few production kinks had yet to be worked out on opening night, most notably the balance of sound between orchestra. performers and electronic miking which made early scenes in this through sung musical difficult to understand. Fortunately those problems decreased notably throughout the show and should be resolved after an additional performance or two.

Additional Information:

'Miss Saigon'

Produced by: Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera

When: Continues through June 20 with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays 2 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. this Sunday (June 13).

Admission: $26.50-$70.50

Where: Benedum Center, Seventh Street at Penn Avenue, Downtown.

Details: 412-456-6666 or online

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