Backstage and Review of Maui’s “Miss Saigon”

The lights inside the Castle Theater lower and we’re suddenly jolted by the loud, immense sound of a helicopter swooping down into the audience. This persuasive sound effect sets the tone immediately for the Maui Academy of Performing Arts production of “Miss Saigon,” which begins with a roar and never ceases in exuding confidence.

While not a traveling production of a Broadway smash, this David C. Johnston directed production always looks and feels that way. This is a way of saying “Miss Saigon” sets the bar extremely high for local productions.

I’ve seen this musical on Broadway, which is its own species of beast, but I will compare the MAPA production of “Miss Saigon” to the professional stage recreation I caught in Colorado years ago and say, easily, this one trumps it.

With a cast of exceptionally talented actors with soaring voices, matching a full bodied orchestra and impressive sets, costumes and production values, the power of “Miss Saigon” is alive in a forceful, heartbreaking production.

This is the first time “Miss Saigon” has ever been produced for the Maui stage, making this a landmark production in every sense. There are possible reasons for this, as the material is demanding and tough, requiring a production to match the enormity of the vision. In this regard, the MAPA team has nailed it.

The setting is Saigon, 1975, where we meet a platoon of rowdy G.I.’s, enjoying some sleazy R&R at a bawdy Miss Saigon pageant. The overseer of the operation, referred to as The Engineer (played with a tidal wave of gusto by Kepa Cabanilla-Aricayos), is a slimy entrepreneur. He’s an exploiter of a troupe of Vietnamese women, who willingly prostitute themselves. Chris (played by Ricky Jones) spots one of the newer girls, Kim (Sharon Zalsos, in her acting debut), whose innocent demeanor makes her stand out, though she’s as broken by the war as everyone else present.

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Photo: Jack Grace

The love story between Kim and Chris provides the thrust of the story, though the ongoing antics of The Engineer, the arrival of Kim’s lover, Thuy (Barry Kawakami) and Chris’ wife, Ellen (Leighanna Locke), as well as the horrors of the ongoing war itself, further complicate the tale, which is told in song and almost no spoken dialogue.

Newcomer Zalsos makes a strong, confident stage debut. Her best moments exude a rawness that connects to her character’s pain and inner conflict. All of the characters are complex, messy creatures of survival but Kim’s journey is the heart of the story and Zalsos broke my heart during her recollection of her village’s sad fate.

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Photo: Jack Grace

Aricayos is excellent as The Engineer, whose introduction suggests an overly eager pimp willing to sell anything or anyone to get ahead. He’s even better in the second act, when the character is no longer defined by his desperation but through an unleashed hunger for sex, profit and power.

The signature number, “The American Dream” is a surreal, spectacular blend of all-stops-out dancing, satire and Aricayos unleashed (I caught him improvising this to a dancing chorus line: “Chi-chi’s out, girls!”).

Kawakami is sensational as Thuy, exuding a brute force in his physicality that matches his strong vocals. The character of Ellen has always seemed so thankless (who cares if this privileged, one-note house wife is happy?!) but, for the first time, Locke made me care. Her composure and vulnerability in her big number (“Now That I’ve Seen Her”) hits hard. Likewise, John, Chris’s G.I. buddy who sets the second act in motion, isn’t a well remembered part, but Neil Clevenger brings heart and authority to the role, as well as to the soaring “Bui Doi” (which is accompanied by a somewhat touching, mostly distracting short film projected on stage).

Another performer who knocked my socks off in a smaller role is Hoku Pavao; her Gigi is introduced during the sexually frank opening number, “The Heat is On in Saigon.” Pavao’s haunting, gorgeous “The Movie in My Mind” is a sobering contrast to all the sex-for-sale shenanigans we’ve just witnessed, reminding audiences that the scantily clad dancers for sale are sad, traumatized young girls.

Seriously parents, the amount of language, sexuality and emotional intensity is to be taken seriously. Don’t take the keiki. This ain’t “Wicked.”

The much lauded helicopter scene (which became a Broadway legend) is impressively staged in the buildup but the overall effect is strangely muted. Once the helicopter is lowered into audience view, the mock up of the copter’s exterior oddly resembles a carnival bumper car.

Far more astonishing is “The Morning of the Dragon”, a nightmarish vision of marching soldiers, Ho Chi Minh banners and precise staging that captured the red fury of a military recruitment poster from hell. The closing scene evokes all the wrenching emotion required but especially striking is framing of Kim and her final actions in a vast red curtain.

Kim (Sharon Zalsos) does a scene with her on stage son as Director David Johnston looks on. Photo: Jack Grace
Kim (Sharon Zalsos) does a scene with her on-stage son as Director David Johnston looks on.
Photo: Jack Grace

The preview screening I attended experienced the sort of opening night hiccups that are common for a show of this magnitude: hats fell off, props were dropped and the volume of the mikes was still a work in progress. These mistakes are likely fixed and didn’t do much to interfere with my overall enjoyment.

What stands is an authoritative staging of an extraordinary musical. My expectations were high walking in and Johnston and company have surpassed them. This is a gift to Maui theater lovers and to fans of grand, emotionally charged musicals. As a re-staging of my favorite musical, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen but just taken as a theatrical experience, the MAPA production of “Miss Saigon” is a killer.

(Program contains mature themes and language.) Six shows only! Fri-Sat Aug 15-16 and 22-23 at 7:30 pm, and Sun Aug 17 & 24 at 2:00 pm
NOW PLAYING at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater
Get your tickets by calling 242-SHOW or online at mauiarts.org

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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