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LIGHTNING REVIEW: 'Miss Saigon' dares to dream

Eddie Egan and Diana Huey star in Miss Saigon at the Flat Rock Playhouse. [PHOTO BY JAMES JOHNSON] Eddie Egan and Diana Huey star in Miss Saigon at the Flat Rock Playhouse. [PHOTO BY JAMES JOHNSON]

"Miss Saigon" opens in the Dreamland nightclub, the first of many sets by designer Dennis Maulden.


In one form or another, dreams define the storyline for this operatic musical, which opened Saturday night in front of a nearly full house at the Flat Rock Playhouse. The question that whipsaws the audience: Whose dream?
A stunning visual production, "Miss Saigon" is based on a simple story. Young G.I. and younger Vietnamese girl find love unexpectedly in the last days before the fall of Saigon, lose love as suddenly, spend the next two hours on a path that leads to ...  reunion or doom?
The story opens as the proprietor of "Dreamland," a slick operator known as the Engineer, forces 17-year-old Kim to work at his brothel/strip joint that serves the war-weary servicemen in the last despairing days of the Vietnam War. That sets up the love story between Kim and Chris, a disillusioned emotionally dead Army veteran on his second tour of Vietnam, as a driver for the American Embassy. He re-upped for a second hitch because "when I went home before, no one talked of war. What they knew from TV/Didn't have a thing to do with me." Things have gotten quite a bit worse.
Now, in "Why God Why?" he asks why now, as the world is falling apart around him, has God sent him an unforgettable night with this girl. In the powerful "Sun and Moon," Kim and Chris express their love for one another. Their dream, though, is complicated by more than the war itself. Thuy, who was Kim's arranged fiancé before her parents died in an attack on their village, bursts into the room where Kim and Chris are celebrating their planned marriage and demands that Kim make good on her father's promise. Chris backs Thuy down but that's not the last we'll see of the villain.
As we see later in a flashback — the most powerful ensemble performance of the show — Chris's plan to save Kim by taking her to America falls victim to the chaos and confusion at the American Embassy. Re-creating the iconic images of the fall of Saigon, director Vincent Marini, choreographer Jennifer Jancuska and designer Maulden stage an amazing scene that features the shutting of the Embassy gates and then the movement of a tall chainlink fence across the front of the stage. And let it be recorded here that the Flat Rock Playhouse has made good on its creative team's promise to make a helicopter lift off from the stage. I would not attempt to describe here how it is done, mainly because I have no idea. Go see the show yourself to appreciate it. Suffice it to say that the magic of theater flourishes in "Miss Saigon," which has the grand power we saw a year ago in "Les Miserables."

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After the Saigon evacuation flashback, Chris's friend John, now working on behalf of the Vietnamese children of American G.I.s, breaks the news to Chris that Kim has borne his son and fled to Bangkok. In the three years since he came home from Vietnam, Chris has decided to leave his past behind and move on. He is married to Ellen, and he tells her about Kim and Tam, now 3. They travel together to Bangkok with John, hoping to meet the boy and Kim. Although Chris promises to support them, Kim will not abandon her dream for Tam to grow up in America with all its opportunity and safety.
The story actually tidies up better than we have reason to hope.
As Kim, Diana Huey gives a performance that meets the story's high bar and her character's Shakespearean turmoil. It's easy to see why she won a Helen Hayes Award when she played the role at the Off-Broadway Signature Theatre. For a small package, Huey belts out the songs with astonishing power and impressive stamina. What's amazing beyond her singing is the ferocity she injects into her character. Rarely have we seen the force of nature that is mother protecting  child so well portrayed as when Kim fights for Tam — against the powerful Thuy, the conniving Engineer and even Chris's wife, Ellen. When she sings to Tam "I'd Give My Life for You," we know she would.
As Chris, Eddie Egan, seen on these boards this season as Freddy in "My Fair Lady," hits the tunes with power and passion.

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As patrons have come to expect in the showcase production of the high season, there are no weak spots. Among 35 songs there is not a dud. Highlights include "Sun and Moon" and "Last Night of the World" by Huey and Egan, "Room 317" by Huey and Erin Mosher as Ellen, and "The American Dream," a tour de force by Mel Maghuyop, who plays the Engineer with great energy.
As for the sets, the sheer number is mind-boggling. There are more than 50 set changes.
"Miss Saigon" is not light fare by any means, but in light of the strong warnings sent out by the Flat Rock Playhouse marketing shop it was not as overtly sexual or as brutal as I expected it to be. An average night of prime TV has worse stuff, more gratuitously presented.
In "Miss Saigon," Chris and Kim dream of escaping the horror of war to the comfort of love and safety. The Engineer dreams of the American dream. Kim dreams hardest of all of the American dream, too, for her son Tam, whatever the cost. It's a universal story, told on the Playhouse stage through fine acting, amazing sets and costumes, powerful music and sensational dance.

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Miss Saigon plays through Aug. 24 at the Flat Rock Playhouse Mainstage. Tickets ($40) can be purchased by calling the Playhouse box office at 828-693-0731 or at www.flatrockplayhouse.org.