Review: “Miss Saigon” – National Tour (Los Angeles)

Covering the red carpet on the Opening Night of Miss Saigon at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, I was starstruck to see British actor Greg Ellis walk down the carpet. He performed in the original Miss Saigon when it premiered in the West End at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1989. The show was such a success, that it stayed in London for 10 years. It also opened on Broadway in 1991 with over 4,000 performances. During this time there was a lot of controversy as the show’s creators exposed the ugliness, deception, misplaced patriotism, as well as the idealism and courage of the Vietnamese during and after the Vietnam War.

IMG_0041
Actor Greg Ellis

The creation of Miss Saigon started as composer Claude-Michel Schönberg noticed a photo of young Vietnamese girl at the airport facing her mother. She was being sent to the United States to live a better life with her American G.I. birth father. The photo touched him about the obligation and responsibility Americans have to the Vietnamese. They became refugees willing do anything to reach America for a better life.

IMG_0027.JPG

Together with Alain Boublil, and lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., they created a show reminiscent in emotional energy, forbidden love, death and rock opera sounds of “Les Misérables,” that these creators opened earlier in 1985.

Cameron Mackintosh’s Broadway revival of “Miss Saigon” opened on Thursday, July 19 at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. This version is especially poignant as Americans daily read and watch the political refugee crisis, as desperate people flee violence in Central America and other countries under our current administration.

There are 28 songs led by Will Curry taking us on the journey of sweet and innocent Kim (performed by Emily Bautista who also played the role on Broadway), whose family was “blasted away” during the Vietnam war and is now a teenage orphan being lured into the Dreamland brothel.

Terrified Kim has electrifying chemistry with American G.I. Chris (Anthony Festa). He wins her heart, yet later breaks it in two. Emily Bauista gives the audience a gut-wrenching performance belting out her golden voice to the rafters of the theatre, especially during one of the most famous songs “I’d Give My Life for You.” Many of her songs are sung with her young American-Vietnamese son Tam, (Adalynn Ng) clutched in her arms.

IMG_0360

Another star of this production is “The Engineer” a sleazy hustler and owner of “Dreamland” (Red Concepción also played this role on the UK Tour). He reminds me of “The Master of The House” in Les Misérables, as he has the audience on the edge of their seats applauding all the way through the curtain call, especially in the number “The American Dream” offering a Cabaret style performance.

Mick Potters spectacular sets change throughout the show, opening with a multi-level Dreamland brothel in Saigon in April 1975. This “recreation area” for American marines has the entire cast onstage bumping and grinding while “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” are displayed in the opening song “The Heat is One.”

Costume designer Andreane Neofitou must have had a great time finding scantily clad pieces for the girls, and the purple pants for “The Engineer.”

When the set changes to the crowded Ho Chi Minh City in 1978, we watch the love affair of Kim and Chris making plans to start a new life in America. A little of the Vietnamese tradition shines through with shoes removed before entering an indoor room, incense burning, and preparations for marriage. Kim longs for a place where she doesn’t have to dance, and Chris is her knight to take her away. Clever lines in the show are “A guy like him (Chris) is a king, they all want him to pull a string.”

A love triangle evolves as Kim’s cousin Thuy (handsome Jinwoo Jung) enters the scene. We learn Kim’s parents betrothed them at a young age. He currently is an officer in the Communist Vietnamese government and Kim must do the unthinkable to try to achieve her dream.

Another highlight in this show is “The Morning of the Dragon” number as five people manipulate a long red dragon blowing steam from its nostrils, while choreographer Geoffrey Garratt has masked Uncle Sam dancers spinning ribbons and flipping onstage.

After intermission the set changes to the “Bui Doi” Foundation in Atlanta deciding what to do with all of the American-Vietnamese refugee children. G.I. John (strong performance by J. Daughtry) starts a video to show the delegation (and audience) about the American-Vietnamese children in orphanages and detention centers, “Conceived in hell, they are the living reminder of what we failed to do.” These children have a “secret they can’t hide, it’s printed on their face.” They are living in “a camp for children whose crime was being born – we owe them fathers….they are all our children too.”

Kim’s flash back (Fall of Saigon 1975) is another dramatic scene at the American Embassy, as we watch Chris frantically search for Kim standing behind a tall chain link fence with razor wire. She is among the desperate people begging to leave on the last helicopter to America, before the city fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops. Chris and other Americans board a life-size helicopter as it comes down onto a rooftop. Lighting designer Bruno Poet enhances this scene to appear as if the helicopter takes off and flies over the audiences heads. The faces of desperate Vietnamese losing hope of escaping, will stay in my soul for quite some time.

The last scene is the seedy streets of Bangkok, Thailand in 1978, where Vietnamese refugees are treated as “rats in the streets.” This tragic ending leaves everyone in the audience in tears.

Other cast members include Christine Bunuan, Devin Archer, Alexander Aguilar, Eric Badiqué, Brandon Block, Eymard Cabling, Joven Calloway, Rae Leigh Case, Kai An Chee, Julie Eicher, Matthew Dailey, Tyler Dunn, Noah Gouldsmith, Haven Je, Adam Kaokept, David Kaverman, McKinley Knuckle, Madoka Koguchi, Nancy Lam, Brian Shimasaki Liebson, Garrick Macatangay, Jonelle Margallo, Fin Moulding, Kevin Murakami, Adalynn Ng, Jackie Nguyen, Matthew Overberg, Emilio Ramos, Adam Roberts, Michael Russell, Julius Sermonia, Emily Stillings, Tiffany Toh, Nicholas Walters, and Anna-Lee Wright. The role of Tam is played by Tyler Dunn, Haven Je, Fin Moulding and Adalynn Ng.

There were approximately 800,000 people that left Vietnam starting in 1975, many of the refugees failed to survive the passage, facing danger from pirates, over-crowded boats, and storms. Survivors first settled in Southeast Asian countries – Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Some stayed, while others waited patiently to live their dream in America.

The performance schedule for Miss Saigon is Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 1pm & 6:30pm.

 Miss Saigon is recommended for ages 12 and up. Children under 5 will not be admitted to the theatre, because the show contains some sexual scenes and language which may not be suitable for younger audience members. This production includes gun shots and pyrotechnics.

Individual tickets for Miss Saigon start at $49. Prices are subject to change without notice.

Hollywood Pantages Theatre – 6233 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Phone (323)468-1770. Website – https://www.hollywoodpantages.com.

Rise Up! Hamilton is at the Pantages Theatre

IMG_0355“History Has Its Eyes” on Hamilton, “So Take A Break” and buy a ticket to one of the hottest American Musicals in history. “You’ll Be Back” and sometimes will feel “Helpless” after seeing this Los Angeles cast perform in a show that will leave you “Satisfied”, because they “Blow Us All Away.”

IMG_0368

Two years ago, my friend Erica gave me the biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and the original Broadway production CD of Hamilton: An American Musical, as a birthday present. I opened the book (published in 2004), and started reading it, while listening to the rap and hip hop musical numbers that surprisingly enhanced my desire to learn more about America’s Founding Fathers. The upbeat, cleverly written show tunes transformed me after just one listening session. While driving up to San Francisco, I listened to the two disc CD and often listened to certain songs multiple times. Others in my car weren’t as enthusiastic to listen to the CD repeatedly, so I became a closet Hamilton junkie. I turned up the volume while alone in my car, as I sang along with the electrifying voices of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom, Jr and other cast members multiple times.

“Alexander Hamilton, I’ve been waiting in the wings for you,” anxious for you to come to Los Angeles. The book and music inspired me to look into flying from Los Angeles to New York City to see the show. Yet with ticket prices quickly rising to beyond my budget after winning the 2016 Best Musical and 10 other Tony awards, I thought it was best to wait until the touring company arrived in Los Angeles. 

Deep down I think I was afraid to hear the voices of this new cast that might sound so different than the beloved ones I was so familiar with on my CD. Would they be as good?

Sitting in row H seat 303, one week after the opening night at the Pantages Theatre, I excitedly took my seat and admired the two story wooden stage by David Korins. A couple from Malibu took their seats next to me and leaned over to ask if I was familiar with the musical? Excitedly, I told them yes and that I knew every line to every song. The wife asked me what the show was about? I was dumbfounded. “It’s about Alexander Hamilton,” I answered. Then she asked me what era did it take place in? “The 1770s,” I said looking at her as if she was joking. When she asked me about the story line, I replied, “It’s about the American Revolution.” Obviously she was strolling along the beach on the night the CBS 60 Minutes episode of Lin-Manuel Miranda aired. He recited the opening song Alexander Hamilton in front of President Obama and the First Lady during the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken World Jam. With the success from that enchanted evening, Miranda was encouraged and inspired to write “My Shot,” and other show stoppers.

As the lights dimmed, tears formed in my eyes as the live orchestra played the first few notes of the opening song and the cast appeared onstage with actor Joshua Henry as Aaron Burr. I was pleased with his voice, and noticed the ensemble sounded very similar to the original cast. What electrified me were their facial expressions. Seeing Henry’s expressions while listening to his strong and powerful voice, especially in “Wait For It” had everyone in the audience applauding. Even though some people in the audience know Burr was “cursed as the villain in history,” the audience adored Henry.  Another winning Henry scene was “Dear Theodosia” with Burr in one chair and Hamilton in another singing about his son Phillip.

I glanced at my Hamilton newbie neighbors to see if they were enjoying the show as much as I was. The husband was starting to fall asleep. WHAT? I wanted to nudge him awake to see Michael Luwoye as Hamilton sing “My Shot,” yet left that to his wife. How could you fall asleep with the lights, sounds and brilliant voices bringing a historical American journey of Independence to life? 

I was surprised to see one of the wealthy Schuyler sisters, Angelica, sporting a dyed Mohawk hair style. Emmy Raver-Lampman’s voice was so similar to the original cast member Renée Elise Goldsberry, that I thought it was the same actress, just with a different look. However during intermission, I realized she was a new, glorious Angelica, as she sang “Satisfied” in the wedding scene. Realizing her beloved sister Eliza was falling head over heels with the same man in the number “Helpless,” Angelica knew she and Hamilton would never be fully satisfied. 

Listening to the CD hundreds of times, I was mesmerized by Soo’s voice as Eliza. In the Los Angeles cast, Solea Pfeiffer had the audience begging for more while singing “That Would Be Enough”. She has us in tears as she heartbreakingly sings about her husband’s infidelity in “Burn”. I sat at the edge of my seats as she burned many of the letters he had written to her over the years, while trying to “erase herself from the narrative,” in history books. 

The character Peggy played by the talented Amber Iman provided some comic relief during “The Schuyler Sisters” number and won pity from the audience as Maria Reynolds. 

With the spirit of revolution in the air, the whimsical Samuel Seabury (Andrew Wojtal) provided a few chuckles before Rory O’Malley playfully reminds the colonists that as King George, he will fight for their submission in “You’ll Be Back.” He exaggerated his facial expressions and mannerism in signing, “What Comes Next?” while wondering how his rebels would successfully govern on their own. His giddiness was amplified when hearing about the United States’ political turmoil in “I Know Him”.

Lighting Designer Howell Binkley enhanced the musical numbers especially with “Right Hand Man” and one of my favorite songs, “Rise Up” as General George Washington (played by the talented Isaiah Johnson) receiving enthusiastic applause.

In fact, I haven’t been to a show in quite some time where the audience applauds, whistles, hoots and appreciatively hollers after every musical number. In fact sometimes they couldn’t contain their exuberance while waiting until the last note was sung, before conveying to the cast their admiration.

Another winning scene is Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan drunkenly celebrating Hamilton’s marriage to Eliza with “buddy-style” camaraderie. The talented Jordan Donica playing the character Lafayette, also plays the giant Afro jiggling head Thomas Jefferson. Donica wowed the audience with his comedic timing and French accent. His bigger than life personality draws all eyes on him whenever he enters the stage. 

Mathenee Treco as the thug-like spy Hercules Mulligan and also as James Madison was also a lot of fun to watch.

Director Thomas Kail and Scenic Designer David Korins idea of a round movable Lazy-Susan-style stage worked so well in many scenes, especially in the musical number “Ten Duel Commandments.”

Another scenic stunner was the ensemble’s choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. The ensemble and Hamilton’s tilted desk musical number “Non-Stop” right before intermission was very clever as we watched Hamilton “write like he’s running out of time.” 

I wasn’t sure how they would portray Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds in “Say No To This,” yet it was tasteful and family friendly. 

Burr brought down the house again with his envy of Hamilton’s power during another stunning musical number “The Room Where It Happens.” I tell you, this Joshua Henry can sing!

Luwoye and Johnson in “One Last Time” as George Washington resigns, sets the stage for the twist in the plot with “The Reynolds Pamphlet” and “Never Gonna Be President Now.”

One could hear a pin drop as the audience watches Hamilton crumble physically and emotionally while begging for Eliza’s forgiveness, as the ensemble sings “It’s Quiet Uptown,” and during the aftermath of Hamilton’s son, Philip’s death. The young Ruben J. Carvajal is believable as Philip and the character John Laurens.

After the historical dual between Burr and Hamilton, and Hamilton’s soliloquy on death, we still have sympathy for the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in “The World Was Wide Enough”. 

At the end of the story, Eliza upholds her husband’s legacy and outlives him 50 more years. Her drive to interview everyone who knew Hamilton helps her tell his story. We learn she establishes a private orphanage in his honor during the sensational song, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” 

Walking out of the Pantages Theatre almost three hours later, I rushed over to The Stage Door to meet the newer cast. “History Has Its Eyes” on Hamilton, “So Take A Break” and buy a tickets to one of the hottest American Musicals in history. “You’ll Be Back” and sometimes will feel “Helpless” after seeing this Los Angeles cast perform in a show that will leave you “Satisfied”, because they “Blow Us All Away.”