`Miss Saigon' at Toby's has spectacle and heart

Musical: The dinner theater's latest production works as an intimate piece amid colorful choreography and stage effects.


Howard Live

October 21, 2004|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When it comes to mounting a show, dinner theaters tend to concern themselves with what's functional rather than what's spectacular.

But Toby's isn't like most dinner theaters, which explains why spectacle has become rather a way of life at the Columbia dinner theater on Symphony Woods Road.

Last season, Toby Orenstein, the theater's director and proprietor, used every nook and cranny of her space to weave the grand tapestry of turn-of-the-century America that is the gripping musical Ragtime.

And for several months this year, spectacle was in the air - literally - as Old Deuteronomy escorted the bedraggled Grizabella up past the Russell Hotel to the Heavyside Layer in Toby's production of Cats.

They're at it again. From this weekend through Nov. 21 and from Jan. 5 through Feb. 20, countries implode, superpowers quake and helicopters ascend as Toby's presents another Broadway spectacular, Miss Saigon.

Crafted by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boubil, the creators of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon is the sad and moving love story of an American Marine and his Vietnamese lover set against the climactic fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War with such wrenching finality in 1975.

Like Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly on which it is patterned (right down to the mixed-race love child the hapless serviceman leaves behind), Miss Saigon is, at heart, an intimate piece full of deeply personal encounters that must click emotionally if the story line is to ring true. All the sexy nightclub montages, frenetic crowd scenes and helicopter ascents in the world go for naught if the characterizations are not delivered from the heart.

At Toby's, they are.

Janine Gulisano, who plays Kim, the ill-fated Vietnamese girl who bears her American lover's child after losing him during the final evacuation of Saigon, has long dreamed of taking this role, as she herself is a Bui-Doi (the Dust of Life), the abandoned child of an American soldier and a Vietnamese woman. The lovely lyric soprano was adopted by an American family and has become one of Toby's perennial leading ladies.

This reality, along with Gulisano's talent, lends immense credibility to Kim's character; from her vulnerability as a sadly out-of-place prostitute, to her courage as she hides her son from the new Vietnamese government in the desperate hope of being rescued by her beloved Chris who, like Puccini's Lieutenant Pinkerton, has taken an American wife in the interim.

Tenor Russell Sunday, another Toby's mainstay, does exceptionally well as the American serviceman, contributing many powerful moments, most notably his "Last Night of the World" duet with Kim, with the solo saxophone adding its plaintive voice right on stage.

The other number that packs a tremendous wallop is "Bui-Doi," the ode to abandoned Vietnamese children fathered by Americans, sung with great fervor by Prince Havely as Chris' buddy, who sets up an organization to help those unfortunate children once he returns to the United States. Superb harmony is provided by the fellows in this one, by the way.

To the enduring credit of its creators, Miss Saigon reflects the damnable ambiguity of the Vietnam experience that had this country tied up in knots a generation ago. To that end, not a single character is a caricature of good or evil, and these actors are to be commended for bringing out both elements.

Thus, Thuy, Kim's cousin and suitor turned Communist functionary and played superbly by John Guzman, manages to be both menacing and sympathetic at the same time.

Heather Beck is lovely as the new wife you want to hate, but can't. And if you want to see humanity and hypocrisy bumping into each other like kittens in a sack, there's the engineer played with incendiary energy by Ron Curameng, a gifted tenor from the Washington Opera. He is extraordinary.

Using masks, dragons, flags, ribbons, evocative lighting and her own angular brand of choreography, Ilona Kessel makes the dance numbers look spectacular.

The music accompaniment was far too loud for the singing in the first several scenes, a problem that was corrected midway through Act I. Otherwise, technical affairs were handled expertly.

Be aware that Miss Saigon contains its share of adult language and situations.

"Miss Saigon" plays at Toby's Dinner Theatre through Nov. 21 and reopens Jan. 5 though Feb. 20. Tickets: 410-730-8311, 301-596-6161 and 410-995-1969.

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