Middleton company raises stakes with ‘Miss Saigon’

Middleton company raises stakes with ‘Miss Saigon’
Kim (Kaleigh Sullivan) and Chris (Elan Mendez-Smith) formalize their soon-to-be-doomed relationship in MPT's production of 'Miss Saigon.'

There’s certainly no shortage of pain and pathos in the story and lyrics of “Miss Saigon,” a musical that finds most of its characters striving to make the best of a hopeless situation in war-torn Southeast Asia. For my money, the line that hits hardest is delivered deep in the second act. It falls to the show’s hero, Chris, the goodhearted Marine who falls in love with a young Vietnamese girl, unknowingly fathers a child by her and abandons them both when the U.S. forces leave.

When he discovers the truth, he’s devastated.

“Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?”

That, in a tidy little microcosm, is the crux of our good nation’s struggle with the Vietnam War, a failed conflict that punched an irreparable hole in our vision of the United States as a shining white pillar of altruism and democracy. We’re now four decades removed from the end of the war and the chaos and mistrust that followed it, a fact that lessens some of the immediacy of the political tension in the show, even with imposing commissars and People’s Army soldiers striding the stage.

But that’s about the only thing that’s lessened about Middleton Players Theatre’s current production, running through Aug. 16 in the Middleton Performing Arts Center. The show goes big in all the right ways – big sets, big orchestra and a big-hearted love story.

The leads set the tone early and carry the show. Elan Mendez-Smith and Kaleigh Sullivan don’t disappoint as doomed lovers Chris and Kim. Theirs is a convincing romance, fueled by Sullivan’s nervous demeanor as she meets Chris on her first night in a Saigon brothel, and Mendez-Smith’s hotheaded passion to find a way to help and protect her. Mendez-Smith’s voice is strong and commanding; Sullivan’s voice loses its way a few times as it traverses the mid to lower ends of the musical scale, but it dovetails perfectly with Mendez-Smith’s on “The Last Night of the World,” the couple’s last moment of happiness before the country around them collapses into chaos.

Shea Thongnuam gets the juicy role of The Engineer, the part made controversially famous by Jonathon Pryce in the show’s late-‘90s West End debut. He’s appropriately theatrical and oily, playing for laughs and always working an angle, even when there isn’t one there. As John, the Marine sergeant who founds a post-war organization to find and assist the Bui Doi (“living dust”), the children fathered and abandoned by American GIs, Dan Jajewski shows some surprisingly powerful pipes. Special shout-out to young Noah Hicks, who plays Chris and Kim’s young child. He’s often thrust into a the middle of a lot of stage bustle — including the scene in which Kim must murder a powerful and unwanted suitor (George Abbott III) to protect him — and he handles it with (literal) childlike grace.

Kate Mann, late of Fugitive Songs and the UW’s Theater MFA program, swings in late in the second act as Ellen, Chris’s sweet and unsuspecting wife. She only gets a couple of scenes, but she makes the most of them. Her strong voice and stage gravitas create an instant sympathy for her character. In the wrong hands, Ellen can feel like an unfortunate impediment to the story’s main love story. Mann’s emotional turn avoids that pitfall — as much as you feel for Kim’s tragic end, you also feel for Ellen’s difficult path forward.

Director Matt Starika-Jolivet’s set is an interesting and complicated puzzle that’s always shifting and shuffling, not unlike the main characters’ fortunes. There are points at which there’s nothing on the expansive stage but the actors; seconds later, the space is packed tight with everything from fences and towers to the neon signs and cages of a red-light district.

Sometimes, the switches result in something visually powerful. The show’s most affecting tableau comes when American solders must train their guns on a crowd of would-be refugees attempting to scale a metal fence and grab a berth on a hovering helicopter — and the audience’s view is over the soldiers’ shoulders and gunsights. On the other end of the spectrum, the staging on Thongnuam’s big song-and-dance number, “The American Dream,” largely skips the stage props in favor of showcasing Sara Bartlett’s choreography. The dancers are good, to be sure, but the number feels a little flat without the additional visual oomph that’s come before.

With “Miss Saigon,” MPT’s re-raised the stakes of what it’s capable of staging, beginning with 2013’s “Les Miserables,” and now with the even more expansive and complicated “Miss Saigon.” The company’s creative ceiling doesn’t appear to be anywhere in sight.