by Terence Young, Head of the English Department
The reputation of St. Michaels University School as a vibrant and vital place to learn does not depend solely on its musical theatre programme, but it could. Those who attended the school’s recent production of Miss Saigon witnessed a highly polished and professional performance, one that belies the term ‘high school musical’ and could easily attract a much wider theatre-going audience. It was impossible to leave the McPherson without wishing to pass the word to others that this was an experience not to miss.
On Friday night, I had what I considered the best seat in the house: dead centre in the front row, directly behind Donna Williams as she conducted her very talented pit orchestra. From this position, I could alternately watch each spectacular scene on the stage and take in the complex and sophisticated musical score. At points, I didn’t know where to look first, because it was all amazing. From the opening number, “The Heat is on in Saigon,” to the poignant closing song, “The Sacred Bird,” time seemed to halt. The pace was intense, and while I am sure that such consistency and coherence owe a great debt to the composers Schönberg and Boublil, I also know that without talented singers, dancers and musicians, any musical — even a great one like Miss Saigon — can be difficult to sit through. However, David Gauthier’s cast and crew, together with the thoroughly professional musicians under the guidance of Ms. Williams, allowed the beauty of the show to shine.
This particular production was blessed with a brilliant combination of actors in the principal roles. It was difficult not to love the entirely scurrilous Engineer as played by Tom Zheng. His charismatic rendering of this determined survivor brought to mind the true meaning of the term “a man for all seasons” as someone who does not allow moral considerations to get in the way of his desire to make his way in the world. Despicable as he was, one could not help admiring his determination to overcome his past. Even at the play’s end, we are not sure if he is holding on to Tam out of shock at what has happened or because he simply does not want to lose his ticket to America. Despite such ambiguity, he literally sang and danced his way into our hearts. Anybody leaving the theatre that night could not escape replaying “The American Dream,” either humming it in the lobby or whistling it in the car on the way home.
Brian Christensen in the role of the love-struck soldier, Chris, lent his character a painfully believable sincerity, particularly in the song “Why God Why?” where his voice carried extraordinary power, even in the upper register. His portrayal of this torn individual’s desire to do the right thing provided a stark contrast to the motives of the opportunistic Engineer and made me think seriously about the setting of the play, the Vietnam war. I remembered meeting some of its veterans, mere ghosts after their ordeal, and Brian offered a glimmer of what had rendered them so insubstantial.
The scene of the Americans’ abrupt departure from Saigon and Chris’ desperate grief as he is forced to abandon his lover, Kim, speaks to the larger failure of American foreign policy, a failure that became even more painful through Veronica Li’s rendering of Kim, a country girl forced into prostitution after the death of her parents and the destruction of her town. Li’s ability to portray this character’s purity and innocence through the song “Sun and Moon” and her duet with Ellen (Olivia Krusel) left the audience bereft at the play’s tragic ending. Li’s sweet voice and spirited performance clarified the plight of Vietnam’s victims as poignantly as the absolutely heart-rending portrayal of her stage son, Tam, played by Soren Kim, an endearing and amazingly self-possessed young actor.
These central players were supported ably by a host of others. Leo Marchand took on the role of Chris’ friend John, who, through his humanitarian efforts after the war, brings Chris and Kim together again. He also focuses our attention on the difficult lives of children born during the conflict, a situation given its most moving expression in the song “Bui Doi,” which Marchand performed skillfully, soaring to amazing vocal heights with confidence and precision. The refrain speaks of these children as the “dust of life/conceived in Hell and born in strife,” and it quite harshly counters the usual sentimentalism characteristic of many musicals. Kaeleigh Fletcher delivered a credibly seductive Gigi, one the many girls working at the Engineer’s sleazy bar. She painted the sadness of her character’s profession in her stellar rendition of “The Movie in My Mind,” a song that illustrates the pipe dream she and the other girls share. Gigi, like many others since her in other wars, hopes she will find a GI who will help her to “flee this life, flee this place.”
Equally powerful was Hubert Wang in the role of Thuy, Kim’s once-betrothed. He radiated ruthlessness and violence, especially after the fall of Saigon when Thuy becomes a commissar in the new government. Yet, despite his cruel behavior, I was moved by the raw emotion in Hubert’s singing, his sense of loss, not only for Kim, who had been promised him, but for Vietnam itself. Finally, Olivia Krusel, as Chris’s statuesque American wife, Ellen, conveyed both fragility and strength as she tried to cope with the revelation of Chris’ past. She expressed the dilemma of all women in her situation most powerfully in, “Now That I’ve Seen Her,” a song in which Ellen comes to understand what it means to humanize the people we are supposed to hate, a theme that informs the entire show.
It is not possible to talk about this production without mentioning the superb sets, the costumes and choreography. The shifts from the bar to the American embassy, from Kim’s sparse apartment to post-war Saigon took place seamlessly and imaginatively, thanks to the skilful carpentry of David Fisher and Peter Leggatt. Even if we couldn’t see the famous helicopter taking off from the top of the embassy, we were caught up in the desperation of the South Vietnamese left behind an iron fence to fend for themselves as Ho Chi Min’s troops entered the city. We also marveled at the precision of the dancers in scenes like “The Morning of the Dragon,” a brilliant combination of stylized martial arts and modern dance that takes place under the stern gaze of a gigantic, golden Uncle Ho. Once again choreographer Kim Breiland has worked her magic with our students. If the scenes in the bar/brothel were a little disturbing, it was because the skimpy costumes worn by our students were not far from what girls their very age are compelled to wear. Some might argue that these scenes weren’t disturbing enough.
All these elements, in conjunction with some very creative make-up, all came together through the hard work of stage managers, assistant directors, sound and lighting technicians and a host of volunteers. The effort demanded by this year’s musical of everyone involved was immense, but I, for one, can attest that it was well worth it.