“Miss Saigon” lands again at starlight

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Broadway musical "Miss Saigon" is many things to many people.  It's both moving and corny, stirring and stilted, thoughtful and fatuous. To some, it's racist. To others, inclusive.

The workmanlike version currently playing at Starlight Theatre encompasses all of the show's vexing dichotomies.

The plot and themes of Giacomo Puccini's classic opera "Madama Butterfly" have been relocated to 1975 Viet Nam in this theatrical mixed bag from composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil ("Les Misérables"), and lyricists Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. ("Baby"). Calling it melodramatic is an understatement, but sometimes audiences love melodrama. (The 2000 production of "Miss Saigon" remains Starlight's biggest selling show ever.)

The cast is led by Orville Mendoza in the role of The Engineer, a sleazy Vietnamese strip bar host reminiscent of the trashy emcee from "Cabaret." His main job is to provide women for the sexual pleasures of the American troops.

One night in the waning days of the war, shortly before the Americans abandoned their embassy via helicopter, an American Marine named Chris (Charlie Brady) goes for a final fling to Dreamland, the strip bar run by The Engineer. There, he meets Kim (Manna Nichols), a newly arrived teenager whose village and family were wiped out in a bomb attack. Like Romeo and Juliet, they fall in love at first sight and fall into bed. But fate deals these star-crossed lovers a terrible set of cards.

While Schönberg's melodies may not be quite as memorable as the ones from "Les Misérables," there are a few showstoppers that can really soar when performed by powerful singers. Mr. Brady and Miss Nichols are more than competent in the vocal department, but their renditions aren't as riveting as one might hope.

Nkrumah Gatling, who plays Chris' buddy John, fares much better with the opening number from Act 2, "Bui-Doi," a song about the half-breed children left behind in Viet Nam by the American soldiers who fathered them. The number, which can sometimes come across as an overly preachy bit of finger-pointing, is genuinely gripping as performed by Mr. Gatling.

Kansas City native Meggie Cansler gets a chance to shine with "Now That I've Seen Her," a song about meeting "the other woman."

As The Engineer, Mr. Mendoza makes up in charisma for what he may lack in vocal chops. Still, his character is not quite as threatening as he should be. He comes off more like a shifty used car salesman than a man who'd sell is mother for a visa to the US.

The production values are strong, although the famous helicopter sequence isn't as spectacular as in previous incarnations. The work of director Fred Hanson and choreographer Baayork Lee is redoubtable, even though the show could have used a sharper pace.

While "Miss Saigon" does miss as often has it hits, the show's moral observations about Americans and America's involvement in Southeast Asia remain potent decades after the fact.

"Miss Saigon" runs through September 13th at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road, Kansas City, Mo. Information is available by calling 816-363-STAR (7827) or by visiting http://www.kcstarlight.com.

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