Theater review: Ambitious ‘Miss Saigon’ lands, takes off at Serenbe

Is there anyone left among us now who can dispute the sheer showmanship of Serenbe Playhouse artistic director Brian Clowdus? After building a functioning carnival fairway around his “Carousel,” or trotting out singing cowboys on real horses in his “Oklahoma!,” that Clowdus’ latest outdoor production boasts the arrival and departure of an actual helicopter in one crucial moment of “Miss Saigon” is, as strangely blasé as it sounds, hardly surprising.

In one sense, it’s like, “Wow, he works a bona fide helicopter into the show!” In another, it’s almost like, “Well, yawn, of course he does.” Either way, in the end, what truly beggars the imagination is wondering what in the world Clowdus will do next to top this.

A sung-through update of the Puccini opera “Madama Butterfly” — featuring music and lyrics by the “Les Miserables” team of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil (with “additional materials” by Richard Maltby Jr.) — “Miss Saigon” transplants the famous story to the Vietnam War era of the 1970s. As all hell breaks loose around them, a tragic Vietnamese “barmaid” named Kim (performed for Serenbe by a touching Niki Badua) embarks on an ill-fated romance with Chris (Chase Peacock), a homeward-bound American G.I.

In addition to the technical challenges of re-creating its theatrical and historical sweep, the casting of the many Asian roles in “Miss Saigon” is also a contributing risk factor. Besides Kim, and never mind various groups of native soldiers and showgirls, the other principal character is her wheeling-and-dealing boss/“pimp,” known simply as the Engineer (a vibrant, scene-stealing turn by Eymard Cabling, who previously played the part in the national tour of the musical).

While I’m usually a stickler about employing local talent, both Badua and Cabling are based out of town, which is somewhat justifiable in this case (given the specific demands). But so are Chris Sizemore (as Chris’ confidant and go-between) and Ryan Ortega (as Kim’s living, then dead, intended husband), which is somewhat less so (given their more generic supporting tasks). Atlanta actress Courtney Chapelle rounds out the major cast (as Chris’ eventual wife).

Under the music direction of Chris Brent Davis, leading a lush 10-member orchestra, highlights among a steady stream of production numbers include “Sun and Moon,” a lovely duet by Badua and Peacock, and Cabling and company’s rousing “The American Dream” (including a cameo appearance by an actual sports car, which generated the same enthusiastic entrance and exit applause from the opening-night audience as that helicopter during the evacuation of Saigon sequence). The choreography is by Bubba Carr.

Serenbe’s natural environment makes a fitting stand-in for the jungles of Vietnam. Elsewhere, however, Clowdus and scenic designer Adam Koch don’t adequately differentiate or distinguish between the alternating settings of the show, spanning several years (1975-78) and locations (from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok to even Atlanta). Smoke machines get quite a workout, providing ambience to scenes that take place in seedy nightclubs or depict the chaos of war.

Overall, though, superbly sung and dexterously danced, this “Miss Saigon” is an ambitious undertaking, admirably rendered.

X