The Heat Is On at WST: Stellar MISS SAIGON Powerfully Touches the Heart

by Patricia Bradford

Eric Kunze and Melinda Chua star in Walnut Street Theatre's MISS SAIGON through July 17 in Philadelphia PA. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Walnut Street Theatre wraps up its 202nd season with a first-rate production of the musical triumph, MISS SAIGON. The composers, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (of LES MISERABLES fame), in collaboration with Richard Maltby, Jr., set this classic love story, inspired by the Puccini opera, MADAME BUTTERFLY, amidst the chaos and aftermath of the Vietnam War.

The story focuses on a young Western military man who falls in love with a young Asian woman, then departs, unaware that she is carrying their child. In SAIGON, as in the Puccini classic, the man detaches and goes on with his life while the young woman dreams of his return. Though he does inevitably return, drastic measures must be taken to ensure the child is given a life of hope.

As one would expect in a musical production of this caliber, all the voices in the cast are excellent; but it is the quality of the acting that sets the WST production apart from others. The chemistry between the American GI, Chris (Eric Kunze) and the young Vietnamese girl, Kim (Melinda Chua) is palpable in the duet, “Sun and Moon”, aided in part by the tender staging, deftly handled by veteran director, Bruce Lumpkin. This team has worked together before, so perhaps that accounts for the level of intimacy achieved in the lovers’ early scenes. Whatever the reason, the result is beautiful to behold. Chua makes a fine Kim, fragile and sweet of voice, but with the core of strength the role demands. Kunze’s vocals are masterful and his portrayal of Chris completely truthful.

Bobby Martino as The Engineer in WST's production of MISS SAIGON. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Other standouts in the cast include Bobby Martino as The Engineer, who helps drive the action of the play, and commands the stage in the show-stopper “The American Dream”. His character is at once captivating and quirky, slimy and manipulative and yet, completely likeable– charming the audience throughout the performance. Martino is completely at home in this role and is a delight to watch on the stage. Angelica-Lee Aspiras as Gigi/Assistant Commissar and Mel Sagrado Maghuyop as Thuy both deliver solid performances with strong vocals. Philip Michael Baskerville’s portrayal of Chris’ fellow American soldier and buddy, John, is honest and he powerfully delivers the moving “Bui-Doi”.

The absolute vocal powerhouse in this cast, however, is Kate Fahrner, as Chris’ American wife, Ellen. Her voice is incredibly strong, soaring and clear in her duet with Kim (“I Still Believe”); additionally, her dramatic skill in the moving “Now That I’ve Seen Her” is utterly stunning. Hers is by far the finest example I have witnessed in a long while of truly acting a song. Ellen gets little time onstage to establish her character — Fahrner makes every moment count and delivers an exceedingly raw, believable and wonderfully touching performance.

The production values are high here, with terrific sets (John Farrell), and smooth, seamless set changes which propel the action beautifully.  Musical direction by Douglass G. Lutz and choreography by Michelle Gaudette are excellent. Ms. Gaudette’s creativity is most especially evident in the ensemble piece, “The Morning of the Dragon”.  The special effects used in staging the fall of Saigon and the harrowing helicopter evacuation scene in Act 2 do not disappoint.

If there’s only one show you attend this summer, make it Walnut Street Theatre’s MISS SAIGON….it’s running through July 17th.  But be sure to bring tissues….your heart will be powerfully touched by the talented cast’s rendition of this romantic tragedy.

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil
Directed by Bruce Lumpkin
May 17 – July 17, 2011
Walnut Street Theatre
825 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA

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