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MISS SAIGON

Pantages Theatre
Los Angeles, CA
Sunday, June 20, 2004 @ 6:30pm

Miss Saigon viewing #4. Overall, I felt this performance was ten times better than when I saw it last year in Cupertino. Most of the actors were the same, so they had had an entire year to grow into their characters. Much of this came out in small, but noticeable details, such as knowing when and where to put emphasis on the lyrics they were singing, bodily gestures, and even something as simple as enunciation. The delivery of lines was much more effective -- part of it may have to do with the better sound system, but the lyrics came through much more clearly and, for the most part, had the intended effects.

The one big criticism I have of the production as a whole was the fact that only half of the usual 24-piece orchestra was hired, and the rest of the music was created by a synthesizer. No doubt, this was done in order to save money that would otherwise be spent on paying the musicians. But, as you can imagine, it had a terribly negative effect on the quality of the orchestral sound. The main thing I noticed was the lack of depth. Synthesized music has many limitations, such as the inability to add human emotion to the way an instrument is played, complex dynamic changes, and -- most obvious to me -- the lack of the true instruments' sounds. Everything sounded flat (not in terms of pitch, but range of our auditory senses). For example, synthesis of the bass drum did not reverberate throughout the theatre like it should have and therefore did not add to the drama as was intended.

And to make things worse, we patrons were forced to pay regular price to hear half an orchestra. There were people outside the theatre protesting this practice, and I have all the sympathy for them. I completely agree, especially after hearing the difference it made. Why should we have to pay the same amount of money for a production that is creating such a sub-par quality orchestral sound? Who do I write to so I can add to the protest??

Putting the orchestra aside, I will focus on the actors, which is where most of the talent is anyway.

The Engineer Jon Jon Briones
Kim Jennifer Paz
Chris Alan Gillespie
John D. J. Oliver
Thuy Mario Tadeo
Ellen Rachel Kopf
Gigi Ramona Dubarry
Tam Nicholas Bugarin/Jonathan Wade

It was an incredible treat to have had the opportunity to see Jennifer Paz portray the role of Kim. Having done the role for many years previously (she originated the role for the U.S. National Tour), it was evident that her experience enriched the performance enormously. Generally, there are small nuances that usually can only be seen in actors that are comfortable with their role, have tried and tested what works and what doesn't, and know how to maximize the effect of their words. Paz had all of this down pat. She has a very strong singing voice that is very pure and needs no unnecessary adornment. I don't think I can even think of a criticism of her singing voice or style -- except for when she sings the higher notes in a soft tone, her voice tends to get a little "breathy" or "airy."

This performance was also the final performance for Jon Jon Briones. I had enjoyed his performance last year as the Engineer, and, if anything, it was even better this time around. Again, it has to do with having had time to become comfortable with the role. He performed the antics that are typical (and I'm sure scripted) for the Engineer, but there were some new ones that worked quite well also, and they contributed to the role of the Engineer of some much needed comic relief. Briones has so much energy on the stage and he plays off the other actors and the audience extremely well.

Adam Gillespie, too, was as good as last year as Chris, possibly even better. Again, whether it was due to the better sound system or not, his singing was actually quite clear and his words came through well. If the term "belter" can be applied to a man, Gillespie is an example of that, and in a good way. Like Paz, he has a very pure voice that showed no strain whatsoever on the many high notes that Chris has to sing, and he was able to produce them with such power that it reverberated through the entire theatre.

One of the other changes to the cast was for the role of John, who was played this time by D. J. Oliver. To be honest, I didn't really care for his performance. I can't say that it was bad, because he got the job done. But there was nothing uniquely spectacular about his singing or presence on stage, except for the fact that he was kind of a big guy (quite tall). He sang well and delivered his lines to adequately move the story along, but he didn't really have the power to really make John stand out when he should have. It was almost like he was the opposite of Wallace Smith (from last year): whereas Smith had great delivery of his lines but lacked in stage movement, Oliver did pretty well with the stage movements but lacked in delivery. For example, Oliver's "Bui Doi" simply did not evoke the emotion I felt when I'd watched Smith's.

Tadeo's performance of Thuy was comparable to last year's -- very clean, urgent and almost desparate when necessary, and his voice came out very clear despite his accent. There were a few times, however, that I felt he didn't enunciate enough and some of his words were running together (particuarly during "Kim's Nightmare/Thuy's Ghost"). He succeeded in portraying his desire for Kim to agree to marry him that he would kill Tam, and his strong hatred for anything American came through then.

Rachel Kopf was again Ellen. Last year, I had a very hard time enjoying her performance but she had improved a great deal this time around. Her singing was much more melodic and easier to listen to, but there is still a little bit of work that is still left to be done. "I Still Believe" was, unfortunately, sub-par. There were several long notes where she couldn't even hold the same pitch and was wavering a bit before she found it. She does not have a strong voice, and there were times where she would try too hard to force the emotion into her voice. I admit, "Room 317" and "Now That I've Seen Her" were so much better than last year -- there was none of that half-speaking, half-singing stuff she did last year, but again, a lot of the emotion was forced and almost unnatural.

"Overture/Back Stage Dreamland": Well done. It set the stage for the performance very well.

"The Heat is on in Saigon": Everyone's presence on stage was much better than last time -- I was able to get a feeling for everyone's situation, especially Chris'. The people in control of the sound system did a decent job, making the characters stand out when they needed to be. The company was able to sing together without their words getting muddled together.

"The Movie in My Mind": Ramona Dubarry's Gigi was about the same as it was last year -- no better, no worse. Maybe she didn't quite evoke as much emotion for me, though. Paz demonstrated her strong voice during her part and never once did she seem underpowered. There was perhaps a bit too much vibrato for my taste, but it was only a minor distraction.

"The Dance": This is where the synthesized music really first made itself apparent. The saxophone was clearly pre-recorded/artificial so it just didn't have the effect it should have. It felt a little awkward when Chris first rejected Kim when they were dancing. Since Gillespie's microphone cut out last year, I don't know it it is different this time around, but there was too long of a pause before he says, "You shouldn't be here. Get the hell out." And for the first time, I really noticed Gigi watching as Kim led Chris up the stairs, staring as if in disbelief.

"Why God Why": Gillespie did just as well here as he did last year. Very strong, very powerful, and certainly full of emotion. You could really sense that he was torn, and being angry at God for making things so much more complicated.

"This Money's Yours":

(More comments on the individual songs to come?)

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