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Miss Saigon as mesmerizing as it is moving

Where: McPherson Playhouse When: Until May 12 Tickets: 250-386-6121 Rating: Four stars (out of five) --------------------------------- When we heard Victoria Operatic Society would venture out of its Broadway comfort zone to stage a musical as ambiti
Jeffrey Stephen starred in Victoria Operatic Society’s Miss Saigon before being cast as Jean Valjean in the upcoming production of Les Miserables.

Where: McPherson Playhouse

When: Until May 12

Tickets: 250-386-6121

Rating: Four stars (out of five)


When we heard Victoria Operatic Society would venture out of its Broadway comfort zone to stage a musical as ambitious as the dramatic pop opera Miss Saigon, our initial reaction was one of skepticism.

Then came the inevitable question: How are they going to pull off that big helicopter sequence?

Happily, any such fears proved unfounded opening night during a production as mesmerizing as it is moving.

All we’ll say about the climactic Act II flashback is that director Roger Carr, exemplifying technical innovation that is a hallmark of this show, has superbly re-enacted the sight of U.S. troops fleeing the American Embassy rooftop during the fall of Saigon in 1975, with Vietnamese desperately trying to scale a barbed-wire fence as the helicopter thunderously ascends.

The sequence was so chillingly evocative on opening night Friday that the audience burst into applause.

There’s much more drama, spectacle and eye-candy in Miss Saigon, beginning with the sexy opening number. It resembles a Victoria’s Secret shoot, complete with gyrating scantily clad “bar girls.”

Indeed, you get the distinct impression you’re in for an exotic experience by the time The Heat Is On in Saigon begins, headlined by Craig Wilson, oozing comic charisma in a flashy blue suit as The Engineer, the sleazy, pimping schemer who, like Joel Grey’s character in Cabaret, doubles as emcee.

Miss Saigon is above all a heart-wrenching love story — first between Kim, the Vietnamese bar girl performed to heartbreaking perfection by Andrea Macasaet, and Chris (Jeffrey Stephen), the sympathetic American G.I. who falls for her.

Then it’s about the love between mother and child as Kim fiercely protects Tam, the young son Chris doesn’t realize he fathered until he’s back in the U.S. (Alexander Killam played the three-year-old opening night, alternating with Eric Zhang.)

As the story inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly unfolds, the tumultuous events of the Vietnam War era and America’s ill-advised involvement are put into perspective.

It’s propelled by a score (music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil) that is a matter of taste and, for some, might seem awfully similar to Schonberg’s Les Miserables.

The VOS production, underscoring the original’s strengths and weaknesses, is a solid revival despite an initial abruptness to the operatic drama.

As well, it takes a while to accept Caucasian actors in some Asian roles, yet these quibbles are soon forgotten as Miss Saigon thunders along like a locomotive.

The luminous Macasaet’s knockout portrayal of the tragic heroine is ably matched by Stephen, robustly affecting musically and in macho stature as her misguided lover, notably in their moving duets This Money’s Yours and Sun & Moon.,

As his marine buddy, John, Dwayne Gordon effectively morphs from wartime bluster to post-combat maturity when he becomes an orphans aid worker.

Backed by a men’s chorus, his impassioned rendition of Bui-Doi, the anthemic plea to remember the forgotten Eurasian kids sung while video of real Vietnam-era orphans plays, was heartbreaking.

Wilson also achieved greater depth as the clownish Engineer after a superficial start as drama gave way to razzle-dazzle in The American Dream, his outrageously cynical, near Fellini-esque showstopper with an amusing stars-and-stripes motif.

The spoofy spectacle of high-kicking, feather-topped chorines and overblown Uncle Sam icons, as well as Act I’s elaborate The Morning of the Dragon number, impressively showcases a top-notch chorus and Heidi Fox Lange’s adroit choreography.

Also noteworthy are Quinn Stevens as Thuy, Kim’s vindictive Viet Cong cousin; brassy Georgia Bennett as bar girl Gigi, particularly when belting out The Movie in My Mind; and Sarah Lane, whose powerfully poignant take on Now That I’ve Seen Her highlights her performance as Chris’s American postwar wife.

This complex undertaking also benefits from Hillary Coupland’s impressive musical direction, David Hardwick’s flavourful costumes and Rebekah Johnson’s innovative lighting. It works in perfect harmony with Gordon Lindstedt’s set design, which fuses red banners, exotic panels and an interlocking set to depict locales including Bangkok’s neon-drenched red light district.