The helicopter has landed on schedule, but where’s the Cadillac? Paper Mill opens a new season with “Miss Saigon,” the glossy 1990 update of “Madame Butterfly.” Time has been good to the tuner. Familiarity with the narrative and score has strengthened its appeal. The show, which leans heavily on spectacle and stagecraft, has not only retained its atmospheric luster but seems to have gained in sweep and sophistication. As staged by Mark S. Hoebee, the production is startlingly vigorous and fresh, and the performances are first-rate.
Kevin Gray, who last season portrayed the Siamese emperor in “The King and I” at Paper Mill, returns in the role of the Engineer, the cynical emcee and crafty pimp. Gray, who appeared as the Eurasian opportunist in a Los Angeles production seven years ago, makes the hustler an appealingly edgy manipulator. Never mind that the white Cadillac does not roll out for a center stage appearance in “The American Dream.” Hoebee has rethought the scene, and the result is a glossy top hat and tails number out of “Follies.”
As for the show-stopping helicopter landing, it’s every bit as thrilling as it was in London and on Broadway, and maybe even more.
As the ill-fated lovers, Dina Lynne Morishita and Aaron Ramey bring both passion and urgency to their plight. Morishita is Kim, the young Vietnamese girl who falls in love with an American lieutenant and gives birth to a child after he has returned to the States. She and Ramey sing beautifully, and their scenes together are rich and romantic.
There is sturdy support from Alan H. Green as the concerned army buddy; Kate Baldwin as the compassionate American wife; Steven Eng as a fiercely possessive and doomed Vietnamese officer; and a keenly focused 4-year-old boy, Galen Ng, as Kim’s son.
Hoebee’s direction is seamlessly fluid and cinematic. The lush and melodic score by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Richard Maltby Jr. tells the story through a powerful recitative pop style in the tradition of grand opera. It guides the audience through the narrative with clarity and a compelling melodic force.
Darren Lee’s choreography for “The Morning of the Dragon,” the “Dreamland” brothel sequence and the previously noted “American Dream” is such a treat that it warrants a second visit. Michael Anania’s set design is spectacular. From a Saigon brothel to the gaudy grandeur of Bangkok streets, the show is a veritable feast for the eyes.