“The ability of the human heart to make itself vulnerable and open to love, even in war or other unlikely times” is the theme of a sprawling musical coming to the James Lee Community Center Theater, said Russell Penney, musical director for the upcoming revival of the Tony award-winning “Miss Saigon.”
Producing what is considered a provocative, iconic musical depicting fictionalized events surrounding the turmoil of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam some 35 years ago may seem daunting to many. But a new generation with new voices and its very own fresh outlook is doing just that: remounting the expansive “Miss Saigon,” set as the Vietnam war winds down with unexpected consequences.
Further setting this production apart is that it comes from a community theater company relatively new to the Fairfax area, Traveling Spotlight Productions. The company is led by high-energy, risk-taking, 21-year-old Derek Critzer. He brought together a multigenerational troupe of actors, singers and seasoned technical artisans to take on the story of a young Vietnamese woman and a doomed romance with the American soldier she loves.
With over 30 songs in its score and special effects that are expected to send shivers through the audience, this might not be seen as a safe choice for a new company. But Critzer indicated that the company and his actors and artisans are “not about playing things safe in its efforts to entertain and inform audiences. Yes, the show is quite ambitious; we just didn’t want to do the tried and true. We decided not to do the same old thing. We wanted to produce a big musical that is not regularly seen.”
“Through open auditions, we were able to secure a nearly 20 member, multi-cultured cast which is fitting for this show. The audience will be introduced to voices and actors they may not know, but will find just wonderful,” Critzer said.
“Miss Saigon” is based upon the opera “Madame Butterfly” in its themes and subtext, though set in a different time, different place and different conflict. It opened on Broadway in 1991, receiving 10 Tony nominations and three awards. It ran for 10 years with over 4,000 performances.
“Miss Saigon” is noted for special effects meant to dazzle an audience. Critzer “promises no less than striking effects.” The company will use special effects that are the caliber of touring companies, according to Critzer. “We want to make sure the audience has a quality experience and does not feel short-changed.”
Working alongside Critzer is Russell Penney as musical director. Penney is the artistic director of the Washington Vocal Arts Ensemble, which aims to discover and present new vocal talent to the public. “This cast has such enormous talent and gorgeous voices,” Penney said. “They are full of the high energy and musical theater skills needed to explore the world of ‘Miss Saigon’ through their own eyes and viewpoints.”
With a live band of about 10 pieces, including keyboards, percussion and reeds, “the rhythmic and sometimes strident music will give the audience a sense of the tensions of wartime as well as the sweetness of love. The score presents the urgency of those times.”
Kim Frias is one of the leads. She is no newcomer to theater, having received community theater nominations for her work in musicals throughout the area. She is playing the role of a young woman, recently orphaned and forced to work at a Saigon bar.
Frias grew up in Manila, the Philippines, listening to the “magic” of the score from “Miss Saigon.”
“My uncle introduced me to ‘Miss Saigon’s’ music. From that moment on, the music has only become more powerful and meaningful, especially since this show turned out to be my first Broadway production to watch.”
For Frias’ character, “everything in her life is in shambles and she is left hopeless. But in one glimmer of a moment, she finds happiness that it is enough to keep her alive despite all odds. She embodies the dreamer in us all and represents the existence of goodness in the face of brokenness ... it’s what we all want to believe in.”
Michael Perez plays the American soldier about to leave Saigon to return to America. His most recent musical performance was in the Elden Street Players production of “Rooms, A Rock Musical.” Other key roles are filled by Christopher Furry, as the shady bar owner, The Engineer. Furry has local professional and community theater acting and singing credits. Rita Gigliotti is Ellen, the American soldier’s wife. She has performed professionally, and also works with area choral groups.
Why see “Miss Saigon”? “The music is plainly fantastic. It is genius musically and emotionally. ... The characters are relatable, the story is heart-wrenching, and there’s a helicopter. What else do you want?” Frias said.