Photos by BreeAnne Clowdus

By Manning Harris

Serenbe Playhouse’s production of the musical “Miss Saigon,” running through Aug. 14, works so splendidly on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s first give credit to the show’s creators: music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Alain Boublil (these two also wrote “Les Misérables”) and Richard Maltby, Jr.

“Miss Saigon,” a sung-through adaptation of Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly,” transplanted to “our long national nightmare,” the Vietnam War, opened in London’s West End in 1989 and ran 4,000 performances; it opened on Broadway in April 1991, also running over 4,000 performances. It is, incidentally, scheduled for a Broadway revival in 2017; Serenbe was the last theatre to get the rights to do it before the revival.

“Miss Saigon” is about many things: the fall of Saigon (April 30, 1975, for you history buffs); the heartbreak and terror and yes, macabre comedy (sometimes) and death and abandonment of war. It is also, supremely, a tragic love story. Shortly before “The Last Night of the World,” we find ourselves in a Saigon brothel named Dreamland. It’s owned and run by the Engineer (Eymard Cabling), a sinister, conniving, hypnotic hustler not unrelated in devilment to the Emcee in “Cabaret.” Mr. Cabling’s performance is brilliant; he fascinates like a friendly cobra. A glamorous bar girl (Gigi) holds court with the other girls.

The Engineer has brought to Dreamland a 17-year-old girl named Kim (Niki Badua), recently orphaned but desperate to do something to survive. She has no experience in the carnival of glitter and flesh that is Dreamland, but the Engineer knows that a virgin often fetches top price from the visiting G.I.’s. An American soldier named John (fine performance by Chris Sizemore) is determined to give his friend Chris (Chase Peacock) a good time before they depart from Saigon. So it’s arranged, with much reluctance on the part of Kim and Chris, who is touched by her innocence, that they spend the entire night together. That means the Engineer gets top price; he’s tickled pink, of course.

What nobody has counted on is that Chris and Kim fall passionately in love. When Ms. Badua and Mr. Peacock sing the soaring “Sun and Moon,” under a real full moon (I was there; I’m not making this up); and you think this love can’t possibly last but you hope it does; and you sense these are two human beings with souls as beautiful as their voices; well, you’re a goner if you have a shred of romance in you. And you can’t call it bathos, not with the ever-present Vietnam quagmire and leering Engineer jolting us back into reality.

But things fall apart, as the poet says. Thuy (Ryan Ortega), Kim’s cousin to whom she was betrothed at 13, wants to claim her as his bride. On that last night of the world, Chris is unable to rescue Kim and take her back as a refugee.

After Chris has gone, we discover that Kim has a precious souvenir of their love—their son Tam (Linder Sutton). But now a steely determination and courage emerge in Kim; she wants a better life for her child. And she believes that one day Chris will return for them—“one fine day,” just as Madame Butterfly sings: “Un Bel Di,” perhaps the most famous aria in opera. And that’s all the plot I can tell.

Director Brian Clowdus says: “I am using the term ‘cinematic’ as our base concept, with this idea of ‘The Movie in My Mind’ and Kim’s dream of a different life being ever present. I want to really balance these huge, larger-than-life moments with intimate, stripped-away moments…never allowing the grandeur to overshadow the heart.”

I must say he succeeds brilliantly: Take the “cinematic” concept, for example. From the beginning I had flashbacks to “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Platoon.” You may have heard there is a real Vietnam-flown helicopter landing nightly at Wildflower Meadow, where the play is performed. You heard correctly. The effect of this is astounding, because helicopters were essential for the Americans in Vietnam. In addition to that famous one leaving on the last day, there was Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in history, as almost all American personnel, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians, were evacuated.

No other theatre in Atlanta, or for that matter, in the country, is doing the kind of breakthrough site-specific work that Serenbe is. Here’s an example: I’m sitting in my seat at the beginning of the play; there’s a beautiful sunset shielded by clouds in the background. Overhead, periodically, jets will silently fly by. It’s like you’re not just watching a play; you’re there, observing real events. There are two pools of water in front of you; way upstage there’s a high mound of earth that people climb for various reasons.

The orchestra sounds terrific; music direction is by Chris Brent Davis. The sound is miraculous; the sound engineer is Rob Brooksher. The words and music are crystal clear. Bubba Carr’s choreography is flawless, subtle and witty, smooth and sexy.

There was a national talent search to find Niki Badua for the part of Kim. It was worth it. She sings and acts with an emotionally naked intensity, vulnerability, and power. She breaks your heart.
Chase Peacock’s Chris is handsome, sensitive, and sings like a dream. It’s nice to see this actor in a role fully worthy of his talents.

We have a carefully chosen cast; I wish I could say more about them, but I can tell you their names: Courtney Chapelle (wonderful), Cassandra Hlong (excellent), Ryan Ortega, Chris Sizemore, Erik Poger Abrahamsen, Shelli Delgado, Hao Feng, Timothy Harland, Jin Huh, Brian Jordan, Hannah Kevitt, Nathan Lubeck, Skyler C. Passmore, Linder Sutton, Terrence Smith, and Austin Taylor.

I saw “Miss Saigon” on Broadway in 1991; I loved it, but as I’ve stated, this performance brought a whole new dimension to the show. “I’ve tasted love beyond all fear, and you should know it’s love that brought you here,” wrote Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon’s lyricist. I would go there.

For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.