by DON WESTWOOD
There are many positive things to report about the production of the hit Broadway show MISS SAIGON presented on April 28, 29 and 30 at the St. Johns Country Center for the Arts. Among the most obvious is the energy of the company. Seen opening night, the cast of nearly sixty actors, singers and dancers exploded onto the stage as if they’d been shot from a cannon. But there was discipline as well. The musical and dramatic focus on stage, sustained throughout the performance, earned the cast a thunderous standing ovation. By the way, the performers were high school students.
Their achievement was no accident. Jeff Dodd, head of St. Augustine High School’s musical theatre program, is an expert producer and director. His standing as an educator speaks for itself: Mr. Dodd was Florida’s “Teacher of the Year” in 2008. His confidence in St. Augustine’s young people is expressed in the decision to produce MISS SAIGON, not an easy show to do. The benefits are clear. MISS SAIGON is a large-cast show with characters only a few years older than the students themselves. The show offers a distribution of roles along a continuum ranging from chorus to chorus-plus to supporting characters to demanding principals.
There are intrinsic challenges as well. Set mostly in Saigon and Bangkok, MISS SAIGON is an updated knock-off of Puccini’s opera, MADAMA BUTTERFLY. As written, the show calls for a largely Asian cast. Wisely, this production did not try for a strictly authentic look for its Asian characters. As a consequence, the bar scenes suggested the Kit-Kat Club in CABARET rather than Saigon’s Club Dreamland or Bangkok’s red-light district, a small price to pay for an entertaining evening. The show also presents issues of rough language and polemic subject matter. These were nicely handled by keeping the focus on the personal stories of the principal characters and
entertainment value of the big musical numbers.
Three stand-out young people led the cast. Casey Sacco offered up an amazingly evolved portrayal of Kim, the Vietnamese “wife” of the American Marine, Chris. With no more than a well-chosen hair style, a touch of makeup, and a simple costume, she became the character. Her body language conveyed the Asian girl’s unassuming physical presence, while her compelling vocal and dramatic performance traced an arc notable for its authenticity and clarity.
Christopher Pritchard brought genuine understanding and commitment to the role of Chris, the Marine tormented by a dilemma of his own making. In MISS SAIGON, the character we love to hate is the Engineer, an unctuous French/Vietnamese pimp. To the delight of all, Butler Robertson poured himself into this role, oozing evil opportunism throughout the evening.
Among the supporting characters, Alyssa Hersey had the right idea for Ellen, Chris’ American wife. She found the character’s dignity and strength and demonstrated exceptional vocalism. Maxwell Longstreet gave an intense portrayal as Thuy, the young man to whom Kim had been promised as a bride. As Chris’ friend, John, Orion Morton conveyed the concerns of a man with convictions and a conscience.
Musical support was excellent throughout, thanks to the contribution of four professional musicians leading the student orchestra. Conductor/Pianist Samuel Clein, one of the region’s top music directors, provided brisk pacing and musical variety. Laura Peden (Keyboard), Damon Martin (Bass), and Kevin Griggs (Drums) provided a solid core to the orchestral sound.