Who needs a helicopter anyway? In an inventive and satisfying remount of the tuner “Miss Saigon” for its 275-seat main stage, Arlington, Va.’s, Signature Theater turns the theatrical spectacle into an intimate love story wedged inside the chaos of the Vietnam War. Benefiting from updated orchestrations and a touching new song, the production enjoys the personal blessings of producer Cameron Macintosh as a potential door-opener to other modestly budgeted licenses of the show.
In this energetic production, the iconic “helicopter scene” depicting the 1975 fall of Saigon becomes a suspenseful and chair-rattling experience for auds fully enveloped within the mob seeking to escape the U.S. embassy that day. It portrays loved ones railing in frustration against an impenetrable iron fence amid a theatrical assault of strobe lights, ominous music and riotous sound. A rope suddenly drops from the darkness above for soldiers to climb aboard an unseen chopper that “departs” noisily over the theater.
That’s the kind of re-think given “Saigon” by Signature a.d. Eric Schaeffer in a fresh production that features a 19-member cast and 16-piece orchestra. The revival comes five years after Schaeffer and company had a hit with a scaled-back revival of “Les Miserables” that similarly turned a blockbuster spectacle into a cozy experience.
Not that Signature is doing “Saigon” on the cheap. The production includes a broad array of moving parts and special-effect generators needed to transform the environmental set into seedy locales of Saigon and Bangkok.
Designer Adam Koch has outfitted Signature’s Max Theater inside and out in war-zone garb that includes wings and fuselages of “fallen” aircraft, radio towers and other period relics. An aircraft wing is employed as a principal ramp for actors to enter and exit the stage. Surrounded by the audience on three sides, the busy space is enshrouded in parachutes as patrons arrive.
The production also incorporates inviting new orchestrations for a small orchestra (or at least one smaller than the Broadway original) by William D. Brohn, inserting a contemporary feel to the 23-year-old musical. Karma Camp’s choreography also helps keep the action flowing.
The first-rate cast is led by Diana Huey as the “Madame Butterfly”-inspired character Kim. A relative unknown, the Japan-born, Seattle-based actress impresses with her soaring soprano and convincing innocence. The role of the conflicted U.S. Marine Chris is in capable hands with tenor Gannon O’Brien, while Thom Sesma drips with insincerity as the suave hustler known as the Engineer, reprising a role he played during the show’s second national tour in the mid-1990s.
Signature regular Erin Driscoll is equally effective as Act Two’s earnest young bride struggling with her marriage’s sudden complications. She delivers with “Maybe,” a moving new song written by the team of Claude-Michel Schonberg, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil about her desire to persevere. (The song has replaced “Now That I’ve Seen Her” since the new tune’s 2011 bow in a Netherlands staging.)
The eight-week run of this “Miss Saigon” wraps in October, clearing the way for an upcoming West End revival slated for spring 2014.