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Miss Saigon at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre: A hit AND miss show

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Walnut Street Theatre concludes its 202nd season with an all-new production of the musical masterpiece Miss Saigon.

Taking inspiration from the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, composers of Les Miserables, collaborated with Richard Maltby, Jr. to create this masterpiece hit that ran for 10 years in London as well as on Broadway.

Miss Saigon is a classic love story brought up to date in a stunning theatrical spectacle. In the turmoil of the Vietnam War, an American soldier and a Vietnamese girl fall in love, only to be separated during the fall of Saigon. Their struggles to find each other over the ensuing years end in tragedy for the young girl and a fighting chance for the child the soldier never knew he had.miss saigon

Walnut’s production has its strengths and weaknesses. The almost all Equity cast members shine mostly through their powerful voices, which are necessary for carrying a show performed entirely in song.

With such well written, memorable tunes as “Why God Why?”, “Sun and Moon”, “I Still Believe”, “Bui- Doi” and “The American Dream”, Miss Saigon remains a crowd favorite.

Melinda Chua  (Kim) and Eric Kunze (Chris), both having performed in Miss Saigon on Broadway stages are well matched and impressive as the ill fated lovers.

Kate Fahrner as Ellen is vocally wonderful and one of the most believable characters in the show. Mel Sagrado Maghuyop plays an impressively fierce Thuy, Kim’s intended spouse in a role that is cut short all too soon.

At the core of the story line is The Engineer; the deliberately sleazy, greedy character who is played by veteran “Engineer” actor Bobby Martino, who has these qualities down pat.  

However, Martino is not easy to understand at times and seems to sport an accent that is anything but Asian nor does he convince us that his character is from that country. He replaces devilish charisma with seedy over the top comedy and indeed gains the crowds attention.

Philly favorites, Jeff Coon and Ben Dibble seem lost in the company yet their voices are heard throughout. A partially veiled version of Bui-Doi, is another missed opportunity to let the talent shine through.

Visually, the production should/could be stunning. Sets, staging and direction are unevenly mixed; from an awkward company number “ The Morning of the Dragon” looking like a scene from Phantom’s “Masquerade” number on the march to the tacky/glittery Vegas style “The American Dream” (minus the car add streamers and dancing poles).  However, lighting designer Jack Jacobs work is consistently good throughout capturing much of the emotion and commotion in this power driven piece.

Now to the helicopter; it thunders through the theater, the audience feels the wind of the blades looking more like a gigantic subway car with the soldiers carefully boarding as it sways to and fro.

Indeed, there is some amazing talent and power in this production mixed with a few disappointing decisions.

MISS SAIGON runs at the Walnut May 17 through July 17.  For tickets and information, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or Ticketmaster.

Pati Buehler
Philly2Philly.com, Entertainment & Cultural writer
Broadwayworld.com, NJ & Philadelphia regional events writer

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Photo Credits:
MissSaigonPress1: Eric Kunze and Melinda Chua. Photo by Mark Garvin.
MissSaigonPress2: Bobby Martino. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Homepage photo: www.ticketmaster.com