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A stirring ‘Miss Saigon' at North Shore Music Theatre
By Don Aucoin
November 8, 2013

The whooshing chaos of the helicopter scene usually proves memorable in "Miss Saigon," and that's certainly true of the current North Shore Music Theatre production.

But it's the intimacy of this "Miss Saigon" that moves you and stays with you afterward, not its flashy or whirlwind aspects, well executed though they are.

Director Richard Stafford and his superlative cast beautifully capture the human drama, excruciating dilemmas, and quiet devastation at the heart of "Miss Saigon," a reworking of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly,'' transplanted to the Vietnam War.

The musical, a sung-through pop opera, tells the story of an orphaned Vietnamese bargirl named Kim, played with exquisite understatement by Jennifer Paz, and an American Marine named Chris, portrayed by Jason Forbach, who fall in love during the war's final days, only to be cruelly separated during the fall of Saigon.

The handiwork of the "Les Miserables" team of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil (Richard Maltby Jr. collaborated with Boublil on the lyrics), "Miss Saigon" is riddled with some of the flaws that bedevil "Les Miz,'' including an insistently melodramatic tone that borders on, and sometimes crosses over into, lugubriousness. When it comes to the geopolitics of the Vietnam War, "Miss Saigon'' is simplistic.

But political and historical complexity is not exactly musical theater's strong suit, is it? We ask musicals to engage our ears and our emotions and to make us care about what happens to the characters - sketchily developed though they often are - and on that score, "Miss Saigon" succeeds.

The question of whether Kim will ever see Chris again is a driving force in "Miss Saigon," which shifts from 1975 to 1978 and from Vietnam to Atlanta to Bangkok. Despite the challenges presented by North Shore Music Theatre's in-the-round configuration, the transitions in time, place, and mood are virtually seamless. That's a testament to the dexterity of Stafford and his design team, including Jack Mehler, who handled sets and lighting, and Paula Peasley-Ninestein, who created the costumes. Music director Andrew Bryan and his orchestra also do stellar work in performing Schönberg's delicate, ballad-heavy score.

Always hovering near the star-crossed lovers in "Miss Saigon'' is a character known only as the Engineer. The proprietor of a sleazy bar, a pimp, a profiteer, and an all-around opportunist, the Engineer sees the romance between Kim and Chris as his ticket to America. The success of any "Miss Saigon'' is heavily dependent on the caliber of the actor cast in this role. (He's as crucial to "Miss Saigon'' as the Emcee, whom he resembles in certain respects, is to "Cabaret.'') In that regard, the NSMT production succeeds handsomely, because the Engineer is played by Francis Jue, a 2008 Obie Award winner for his performance in David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face."

Jue delivers an indelible portrait of a Mephistophelean hustler who doesn't so much walk as slither, a cannily corrupt survivor adept at switching allegiances to fit the political moment in a country where power is always changing hands. "Give me francs or dollars or yen/ I'll set up a game/ I know how it works,'' he sings in "If You Want To Die in Bed.'' Jue excels in one of the show's best numbers, "The American Dream,'' a jauntily cynical tribute to untrammeled capitalism, gleefully sung by the Engineer while dollar-bill-clutching members of the ensemble spin a star-spangled, red-white-and-blue arch about the stage. (Stafford, the director, also devised the choreography.)

The ensemble is strong overall, with exceptional performances in supporting roles by Rodrick Covington as a friend to Chris; Haley Swindal as (to say no more) another critical figure in Chris's life; and Devin Ilaw as Thuy, the cousin to whom Kim was betrothed, who becomes an officer in the North Vietnamese army.

There's an overall blandness to the character of Chris that Forbach is not quite able to surmount, but the actor rises to key moments like that tumultuous helicopter scene, when the 1975 evacuation of Americans from Saigon leaves desperate Vietnamese behind, including, despite Chris's frantic efforts, Kim.

As Kim, Paz occupies the emotional center of "Miss Saigon" with uncommon grace. Without overplaying a single moment, the actress wrings the heart, reminding us that the casualties of war can't always be easily counted.

by Joyce Kulhawik
November 15, 2013

To see or not to see- that is the question! Definitely see"MISS SAIGON" up at the North Shore Music Theatre! I just saw it and despite the fact that it took me 35 minutes to get out of the parking lot- it was worth it. This Tony-Award winning musical based on Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," is set in Vietnam where a marine falls in love with a young Vietnamese woman, then is separated from her during the fall of Saigon, with tragic consequences. YES- this extremely effective theater-in-the round staging successfully convinces us that a helicopter actually lands amidst thousands clamoring to escape during the chaotic US departure. But most importantly, the leads Jennifer Paz as "Kim" and Jason Forbach as "Chris" are exceptionally charismatic with gorgeous voices that send this already beautiful score by "Les Mis" team Schonberg and Boublil soaring. Francis Jue is less caustic and more sympathetic than Broadway's Jonathan Price as the entrepreneurial Engineer- who dreams the American dream as more of a "scheme" to get rich. Tickets going fast- through November 17!

Passionate performances fuel searing, stunning 'Miss Saigon' in Beverly
By Sally Applegate
Wicked Local
Nov 06, 2013

"Miss Saigon," the heartbreaking Vietnam War story playing at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, is a stunning production that sears the soul. Outstanding in a remarkable cast, Jennifer Paz and Jason Forbach as star-crossed young lovers Kim and Chris flood their roles with the passion and discovery of first love.

Inspired by the opera "Madame Butterfly," this musical traces the story of a young American soldier who unknowingly impregnates the young Vietnamese girl he plans to bring back to the United States with him. The young lovers have been married in a traditional Vietnamese ceremony, but are wrenched apart during the fall of Saigon.

There is a sweeping melodic score by Claude-Michel Schonberg with intelligent and moving lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil. Every member of this cast has rich and impressive voices that bring the score to vivid life. The contrast between the sweet and delicate female harmonies in a Vietnamese wedding and the powerhouse punch of an all-male church choir is stunning.

Paz, who played Kim in the first national Broadway tour of "Miss Saigon," is exquisite as the Vietnamese country girl who captures the heart of a young American soldier. Her ringing voice, with a full lower range as well as a breathtaking high range, combined with her extraordinary acting, imprints this vulnerable child on your heart.

Forbach is a match for Paz, with a brilliant vocal performance as Chris. His solo work is magnetic and powerful, and when their two ringing voices meet in duets, they are heartbreakingly romantic together.

Francis Jue is compelling as that cynical survivor, the Engineer. He has a magnificent voice, and his sharp performance is permeated with subtle humor and a burning interior rage. His performance of "The American Dream" is embellished by American businessmen swaying back and forth brandishing handfuls of cash, as cash also floats down from the ceiling into the audience and busty blondes wiggle nearby.

Rodrick Covington is powerful as Chris's soldier buddy John, who becomes a minister after his military service. Act II begins at a church service, complete with a powerful male church choir, heartbreaking films of Vietnamese war orphans, and a compelling solo by Covington. A central theme of Act II is that we are responsible for these lost children.

Devin Ilaw is handsome and convincing as Thuy, the husband Kim's parents had chosen for her, who has now risen to become a commander in North Vietnam. Ilaw has a powerful singing voice and he uses it well in this production.

 Haley Swindal is touching as Ellen, the American wife Chris has married after moving on from the loss of his first love Kim. Swindal is a lovely singer. There is an interesting visual contrast between the maturity of Ellen and the childlike quality of Kim as they share a powerful scene.

The role of Tam, the tiny son of Chris and Kim, for whose future Kim is willing to sacrifice herself, is sweetly played by 8-year-old Isabella Shee.

Director/choreographer Richard Stafford has aced this production with riveting direction and fascinating choreography. There are moments of quiet inspiration backlit by romantic lighting, and moments of insane desperation that punch you in the gut.

Don't bring the kids. This show features raw sexuality and violence.

"Miss Saigon"
A Review by Sheila Barth
November 14, 2013

Last year, at Ogunquit Playhouse's superlative production of Tony Award-winning hit musical, "Miss Saigon," I was convinced no other theater could match it. I didn't foresee incomparable director-choreographer Richard Stafford's unleashing his superb artistic vision and dramatic power at Beverly's North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT).

Besides an exceptional cast of 25, starring lovely Jennifer Paz as teen-age Vietnamese orphan, Kim, both in Ogunquit and NSMT, Stafford and Co. wisely utilize the 1,500-seat, in-the-round theater's aisles, platforms, upper catwalk, rafters, and circular stage's central, elevated lift to supreme advantage. Theatergoers are surrounded, experiencing the play's utmost impact of 1970‘s war-and-post-war agony and ecstasy.

Stafford not only vividly shows the exploitation, horror, genocide, displacement, fear, treachery and uncertainty "over there," but tenderness, love, and caring in those terrifying circumstances.

Theatergoers who were touched by the Vietnam War and its profound effect on beloved returning soldiers, also recall painful memories that destroyed their lives.

 "Miss Saigon" adds another potent message - a deeply moving video of the many beautiful, innocent "half-breed" children who were fathered by our soldiers and left there. In the second act opening scene, Roderick Covington as veteran soldier John delivers a heart-rending plea in "Bui-Doi,"  at an Atlanta church, showing these children desperately needing help. "These are the faces of the children we left behind," he sings, "and we must not forget them. They are our children, too."

That's when John tells his veteran buddy Chris that Chris has a son with Kim, whom John tracked to Bangkok in October 1978. However, Chris, who experiences recurrent nightmares, has married his hometown girlfriend, Ellen (Haley Swindal).

In "Miss Saigon," every scene is theater at its best. Before the opening, a lone farmer toils in the aisle. It's April 1975 in Saigon. The stage bursts into a tawdry scene, where scantily-clad girls entertain soldiers in a club. Thrust into this bacchanal site is 17-year-old orphan villager, Kim (Paz). She's virginal, sweet and wholesome, frightened. As the Engineer (fantastic Francis Jue) hawks his female flesh to male patrons, soldier John comforts his conscience-ridden friend Chris (Jason Forbach), by paying for Kim to spend the night with Chris. The couple falls in love and are feted in a sweet wedding scene, lined with ceremonial candles, and a shrine, surrounded by other girls.

Paula Peasley-Ninestein's authentic-looking, military, ceremonial, and streetwear costumes, Jack Mehler's scenic design and dramatic lighting effects, Michael Eisenberg's realistic wartime sounds,  and music director Andrew Bryan and company's superb accompaniment enhance this production's excellence.      

Yes, the famous helicopter arrives in the second act, hovering, descending, then ascending through gunfire and explosives, as sobbing, panic-stricken people - and Kim - clutch and climb wired fences, attempting to get aboard.

Enter Ho Chi Minh City, April 1978,  soldiers stand nearby, their guns drawn. Red banners unfurl overhead, as ceremonial creatures and soldiers round up blindfolded people in the center, and execute them.

People scurry, trying to escape. Refugees are forced to leave their homes. Frightening scenes surround us.

Portraying Kim's family-arranged fiance, Thuy, Devin Ilaw is powerful, enraged, and threatening, as a commander in the Viet Cong. He threatens to kill Kim's illegitimate son, Tam, (a touching Isabella Shee), because the child is a symbol of her shame and broken promise to her deceased parents.

This tragic love story ends sadly.

However, this unforgettable production shouldn't be missed. 

NSMT stages compelling ‘Miss Saigon'
By Sean Leonard
Friday, November 8, 2013

Just as it is with albums or movies or even restaurants, we all have our favorites when it comes to musical theater. And so I begin with a disclaimer: "Miss Saigon" has been at the top of my list since I first saw the show in Boston about 20 years ago. I've seen it several times since and that hasn't changed. It's simply a must-see for me any time it's on stage nearby, same as a Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band concert.

So, how does the North Shore Music Theatre's production of this three-time Tony Award-winning show, touted to be "the classic love story of our time," compare? Well, there is no comparison. This is the best, hands down.

The score, orchestra, cast, flawless scene transitions, choreography and props - complete with the helicopter landing during the Fall of Saigon - are spectacular, and the show encompasses the audience in NSMT's theater-in-the-round.

The central characters, Kim (Jennifer Paz), Chris (Jason Forbach), John (Roderick Covington), Ellen (Haley Swindal), Thuy (Davin ILaw) and The Engineer (Francis Jue), are spot-on with powerful and moving solos, duets and ensemble numbers. And the chorus and supporting cast are amazing.

What sets this production apart from others I've seen of this show in larger venues is that the audience captures every moment and hears every word as the story shifts back and forth from 1975 war-torn Saigon to 1978 Bangkok.

The story, which most are probably familiar with, sets Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" within the turmoil of the Vietnam War. The opening number, "The Heat Is On In Saigon," is an eye-popping extravaganza set in a Saigon brothel where Marines Chris and John are among the GIs looking for some R&R. The Engineer, an affable pimp-con man desperate to make his way to the USA, introduces his new girl, Kim, a 17-year-old who witnessed her family killed and has turned to prostitution, to the troops, and John pays The Engineer for his buddy, Sgt. Christopher Scott, to spend the night with her.

Much of Act 1 is focused on Chris' and Kim's first encounter and the love that leads them to an altar in a Vietnamese ceremony the very next night. Chris pledges to take Kim back to America. But they're split during an emergency evacuation of American troops during the Fall of Saigon, which we're shown during a flashback in Act 2.

The plot thickens when we flash to three years forward, Kim still longing for Chris' return. Thuy, the man Kim's parents had pledged her to and who is now fighting for the other side, comes for her instead. But she denies him and reveals to Thuy and to the audience that she has borne Chris' son, Tam.

When Thuy threatens to kill the boy, Kim shoots and kills Thuy. But not before Thuy puts a curse on Kim. And, in death, he continues to haunt her..

The Engineer, meanwhile, considers the boy with American blood his ticket to the USA, and he devises a plan to smuggle Kim and Tam to Bangkok and, ultimately, America.

Chris is now a civilian and married to his American wife, Ellen. John tracks Chris down and delivers the news that Kim survived and that he has a son.

Chris must now tell Ellen and the stage is set for the confrontation in Room 317 of a hotel in Bangkok between Ellen and Kim, and ultimately, the tragic circumstance under which Chris and Kim finally reconnect.

Among the staple numbers in "Miss Saigon" is "The American Dream," which features The Engineer, who injects the right mix of comedy to the story throughout. And Francis Jue nails the number along with the ensemble cast that brings his vision of America, "where girls can buy t**s by the pair and bald people think they'll grow hair," to life.

And Covington's character, John, performs perhaps the most moving solo of the show, "Bui-Doi (The Dust of Life)," at the beginning of Act 2, as a screen shows images of children born to American troops, "conceived in Hell and born in strife," left behind in a country that has shunned them. John appears to break character as he stands at a podium and sings directly to the audience, pointing to the images on screen as he implores, "We must not forget that these are all our children, too."

Indeed, Kim's sole mission, after learning her husband has taken another wife, is to ensure Tam reunites with his father to give him a better life. She follows the only path she knows to make that happen.

So don't miss "Miss Saigon" at NSMT. Go, and, chances are, you'll want to go again. And, chances are, I'll be there again, too.

By Jan Nargi
November 17, 2013

North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. is bringing its 2013 musical season to a close with a triumphant production of MISS SAIGON, the Vietnam War Era adaptation of Puccini's tragic opera Madame Butterfly. With a tremendous cast led by the thrilling Jennifer Paz, Jason Forbach and Francis Jue, this brilliant in-the-round staging of the Boublil and Schönberg classic is at once epic and intimate, making the improbable love found amidst the ruins of war all the more agonizing and profound.

MISS SAIGON is among the best of the sung-through poperas of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Set immediately before, during and after the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, the story pivots on the agonizing separation of the young South Vietnamese prostitute Kim (Paz) from her American soldier husband Chris (Forbach) when the U.S. orders the immediate evacuation of all its troops. For the next three years the refugee Kim (now the mother of Chris's son Tam) relentlessly sets out to find her husband and deliver her son to a better world. With the help of her pimp and opportunistic protector The Engineer (Jue), she makes good on her vow only to find that Chris is now married to Ellen (Hayley Swindal). In abject despair, Kim seizes upon one final act of courage to ensure that her son is raised by his father in America. With unflinching determination, she proves that no power on Earth is as strong as a mother's love.

Through a score that pulsates with passion and urgency, and with an invaluable assist by lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., MISS SAIGON unfolds with a clarity and urgency that reaches deep inside and won't let go. In this production in particular, the story feels as raw and compelling as if the Vietnam War were still being played out in our living rooms on the nightly news. Director/choreographer Richard Stafford seems to be working here almost intuitively, infusing his cast with a life force harnessed from all the soldiers and all the abandoned war brides and all the orphaned children ever to suffer the indignities of war. When ill-fated lovers Kim and Chris dance to the haunting sounds of a prescient solo saxophone, it truly feels like it is "The Last Night of the World."

The entire cast is stellar, but it is the heartbreaking performance of Jennifer Paz as Kim that sends shockwaves of emotion through the theater. As delicate as a rose petal but as fierce as a cornered lioness protecting her young cub, Paz is quite simply stunning. A standout in the very fine Ogunquit Playhouse production of MISS SAIGON a few years ago, Paz is even more indomitable here.

Jason Forbach is also formidable as Chris, the painfully conflicted American soldier who wants only to do good but can't assuage the agony that the presence of the U.S. troops has wrought upon the Vietnamese citizens. An emotionally wounded warrior whose return home is marred by nightmares and guilt, he experiences devastating personal torment over his inability to do right by both Ellen and Kim. Defeated and forever disillusioned, Forbach turns his desperate pleas in "Why God Why" and "The Finale" into excruciating wails of anger and helplessness.

As Ellen, the wife caught between her devotion to Chris and her empathy for Kim, Haley Swindal is both resolute and sympathetic. In what can be a thankless role, Swindal finds warmth and compassion. When she sings "Now That I've Seen Her" it is with a pain that makes it clear that she, too, is yet another innocent victim - just one more piece of collateral damage from a war that no one wins.

Another potent performance is turned in by Francis Jue as the angry and opportunistic Eurasian "businessman" The Engineer. Wily, seductive, wry but also well aware of the dangers around him, he is the ultimate salesman when peddling the flesh of his working girls and the ultimate survivor when evading the wrath of Saigon's newly installed fascist regime. He infuses "The American Dream," a vaudeville-style number that simultaneously exalts and denigrates capitalism, with both a lusty desire and a hissing cynicism that strike at the heart of the unbridgeable gap between the have-nots and the haves.

Also deeply moving are Rodrick Covington as Chris's friend John, the embassy worker who has made it his personal cause to fight for all the orphaned children left behind, and Isabella Shee as Tam, the one child whose mother Kim will not allow to be forsaken. Covington brings a gospel-like intensity to his fervent plea "Bui-Doi," and Shee displays a silent sadness, devotion and vulnerability far beyond her years.

This NSMT production of MISS SAIGON delivers its power through intimacy instead of bombast. As a result, its love is far more moving and its anguish more personal and profound

Brilliant Score Drives NSMT's 'Miss Saigon' 
by Claudia A. Fox Tree
November 12, 2013

Winner of three Tony Awards, MISS SAIGON is the tragic story of Puccini's Madame Butterfly set in the war zone of Vietnam. The show begins with the Artistic Director acknowledging that the story is about war and its devastating effects, which may, at times, be difficult to watch. Knowing that NSMT presents in the round, I eagerly scanned the theater wondering if and how the 'helicopter scene' would be presented. I searched the rafters with anticipation for a clue to whether or not I would witness this minor miracle of staging; after all, a big, bulky helicopter should be easy to spot! I couldn't find the copter anywhere, so I was, indeed, surprised when it finally appeared at the end of the first act. The scene wasn't what I expected, the helicopter was not the centerpiece, but the staging was very cool nonetheless. Ultimately, it ended up being less important to see the actual helicopter because the brilliant, technical aspect of lighting and sound design did all the work. It was hard to believe that a copter blade wasn't piercing the night sky immediately above the audience. The visual effect was more 'real,' than the physical presence of the cockpit. I could swear I even felt wind on my face.

Jason Forbach plays Chris, a white American soldier, who falls in love with Kim, played by Jennifer Paz, a Vietnamese farm girl who arrives in the big city only to be recruited by the bald-headed Engineer, played by Francis Jue, to perform in a nightclub full of sequined, bikini clad dancing girls. The 'girls' and the seventeen-year-old Kim perform the catchy opening number, 'The Heat is On In Saigon,' and they are cute and fun to watch as they prance around the club lap-dancing with United States military men of all racial backgrounds. A dreamy production of, 'The Movie In My Mind' follows. It is no surprise that the songs are moving and memorable. The score and music is by Claude-Michel Schonberg and the lyrics are by Richard Maltby and Jr. and Alain Boublil. This is the same team that created LES MISERABLES, among other musicals.

Ms. Paz's singing is beautiful. However, when Mr. Forbach began singing during the third song of the night, 'The Transaction,' my eyes and ears opened up wide. Whoa. He was stunning. He moved from a gentle, sincere, inner sadness, bordering on depression, into a man questioning what is happening, as he falls in love, expresses his joy, and projects his voice for all to hear. His boyish features reminded me that the average age of a soldier in Vietnam was just nineteen.

Chris and Kim live together as a married couple for two weeks. One of the most beautiful scenes in this musical is when they profess their vows to each other and the 'girls' sing the traditional Vietnamese wedding song because 'it's the only song they know' about love. They sound like a live choir echoing in a sacred building filled with the light of a thousand candles.

While the imagery and songs express longing and affection, the story, at times, moves along slowly during this first scene of Act I. It's about love, after all, and its lingering afterglow. Fortunately, there are a few numbers which pick up the pace and break up the romance of Act I, including the opening of the second scene in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). 'The Morning of the Dragon' reminded me of when the Nazis arrived to the club in the musical, Cabaret. Shocking and scary. The militant marching is interwoven into the dancing, which captures traditional Vietnamese movements. My eyes darted to every stage entrance to soak in the drama in all its red coloring.

Chris and Kim are separated during the fall of Saigon. Two characters emerge as 'saviors.' The Vietnamese Engineer who ends up protecting Kim and her 'secret' and the Black captain of Chris's battalion, John, played by Rodrick Covington, who has his own recovery mission after the war ends. Act 1 ends with Kim's foreboding and melancholy song, 'I'd Give My Life For You.'

In the second act, the first song, 'Bui-Doi,' honors the children left behind from liaisons between American soldiers and Vietnamese women. Mr. Covington is passionate as he sings 'I never thought I'd plead/For half-breeds from a land that's torn/But then I saw a camp for children/Whose crime was being born.' I had forgotten about this part of the play and felt my breathing get heavy and my eyes well up with tears. A video compilation of real life children, often in orphanages, is screened while a male choir sings back up. The sheer numbers of children left behind in Vietnam is astounding. At least that's what I assume was shown, from my experience and memory of seeing this musical in other venues. At this performance, unfortunately, I was sitting in a section behind the screen and had no visibility at all, except to see the projector. While the song is moving, the emotional moment that combines real life visuals and heartfelt singing was completely lost on me after the first few seconds. I wished that there were two screens, or even a mirror above the projector so that I could see a little of what the other 75% of the audience was seeing.

The remainder of musical takes place in Bangkok and we meet Ellen, played by Haley Swindal. She is Chris's blond, white, American wife whom he married after a year long search for Kim. I wanted to hate her, well her character, but I couldn't. Ms. Swindal's singing is boisterous and caring as she meets Kim, accepts her husband and all his past history, and belts out, 'Now That I've Seen Her.' But this is a star-crossed lovers tragic tale and the two are never to be able to recreate their past. Songs of guilt ensue until the dramatic ending.

I was pleased to see that so many members of the ensemble, both male and female, were of Asian descent. The ethnic and racial diversity of the cast brought an authenticity to the scenes and meant that no artistic decisions needed to be made to portray, say, non-Asian heritage folks as Asians. For those familiar with popular musicals entertaining Asian themes, the story of war, choosing a white American hero over an Asian man, and dying rather than 'ruining' his life, are all too familiar, and have even become a stereotypical Asian female archetype. However, the NSMT version of MISS SAIGON did some things others don't always achieve, it reminded us of our diversity, our global connectedness, and the beauty of multi-racial relationships and children of that union through loving, powerful music and lyrics.

Miss Saigon at the North Shore Music Theatre
By Keith Spencer
NoBo Magazine
November 7, 2013

The heartbreaking, epic musical Miss Saigon has landed at the North Shore Music Theatre, bringing together a remarkable cast who offer nothing but stellar performances. The raw power and emotion of this Broadway favorite was evident from the opening scene to its tragic close, often leaving the audience in a solemn, reflective silence.

Jennifer Paz and Jason Forbach command the stage as a Vietnamese girl (Kim) and American soldier (Chris) who fall in love only to be separated during the fall of Saigon. Paz was flawless in every performance of the evening, not surprising as she played Kim during Saigon's first national, Broadway tour.

Accompanied by the powerful vocals of Forbach, their onstage chemistry exuded passion as they deliver dulcet duets like Sun and Moon and Last Night in the World.

Joined by the girls ensemble, the delicate, harmonized vocals of The Ceremony were completely captivating, and ultimately led to my hopeless rooting for a couple I assumed was doomed.

Despite the production's darker overtones, constant comic relief emanated from the lines, lyrics, and onstage presence of The Engineer. Masterfully portrayed by Francis Jue, The Engineer maniacally maneuvers the underground worlds of Saigon and Bangkok with such a sharp wit and occasional outrage. His embellished, wanna-be American persona is further propagated by his performance of The American Dream. Despite a highly cynical and selfish outlook, I just couldn't help but cheer for Jue and The Engineer's ultimate success.

Another standout in the 25-member cast was Rodrick Covington as John, Chris' fellow soldier who serves as his minister back home in Atlanta. Covington opened the second act with a soaring solo vocal, Bui-Doi, accompanied by a stunning all-male choir and heartbreaking images and films of Vietnamese war orphans.

Other notable performances included Devin Ilaw as Thuy, Haley Swindal as Ellen, and Esibella Shee as the adorable Tam, the daughter of Kim and Chris who was born following his departure from Vietnam. It was the second time Shee appeared onstage in Beverly this season, portraying a munchkin of the Lullaby League in NSMT's The Wizard of Oz.

While the set design was simpler in comparison to other performances this season, the show's producers maximized use of the theatre-in-the-round. The audience was enveloped into a number of scenes, including the memorable helicopter flight from Saigon so often associated with this production.

The topics and material at the heart of Miss Saigon are raw, emotional, and graphic. The colorful language and graphic imagery is essential to helping the audience, especially younger audience members such as myself, understand the harsh realities of the Vietnam War, the impact on those we asked to serve, and the people who were left behind.

Be sure to leave the kiddos at home. 

Review by Tony Annicone
Theatre Mirror
November 7, 2013

The current show at North Shore Music Theatre is Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's, "Miss Saigon" an epic and tragic musical of a young couple in love, who are torn apart by the Vietnam war in 1975 but are held together by a burning passion and the fate of a small child. This musical is based on "Madame Butterfly" by Giacomo Puccini. In this show the conflicting cultures and ideologies of the world meet violently in Saigon where cultures clash and ways of life battle on a grand scale. At the eye of the storm stand these two lovers, Kim, a Vietnamese girl who is forced to work in a sex shop and Chris, an American marine guard at the U.S. embassy. When Saigon falls and the old city disappears forever under the red banners and yellow stars of the Viet Cong, Chris not realizing Kim is pregnant, is forced to evacuate with the U.S. forces from the country. She falls in with her former employer, the procurer of sex slaves, the Engineer, who is determined to reach America with Kim's son as the passport he needs and pretends to be her brother. The three of them move to Bangkok. Chris returns home and eventually marries, a few years later he learns of his son. He and his wife, Ellen travel to Bangkok to find Kim who is determined to make Chris take their son back to America at any cost. Director/choreographer Richard Stafford picked a talented cast to fill these roles and taught the dances but stages picture postcard moments with his performers while music director Andrew Bryan not only taught these intricate melodies and harmonies to the 25 cast members but conducts a fabulous  12 piece orchestra, too. The musical is a masterpiece with its soaring ballads, comic songs and gut wrenching dramatic acting and the 25 performers are rewarded with show stopping applause during the show and a spontaneous standing ovation at curtain call. It is the must see show of the autumn season.

Richard directed and choreographed "Cats" earlier this season at NSMT. He keeps the show in constant motion and his direction and blocking of his performers is done with ease. Richard's dance numbers include the sex shop dance by the girls, the scary marching of the Viet Cong in "The Morning of the Dragon" and the patriotic type dance in "The American Dream". He always brings out the best in his talented performers blending the comic and dramatic moments perfectly. The Viet Cong execute 3 prisoners in "Morning of the Dragon" and the helicopter sequence with those left behind is splendidly done with the audience seeing the devastation and anguish from these performers. Andrew conducting of 64 musical numbers is astounding and he makes the cast and the orchestra sound marvelous in this sung through opera like show. Some of the musical numbers sound like Boublil and Schonberg's other show "Les Miserables", "The King & I", "South Pacific", "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita". The standout group harmonies are the girls' songs "The Movie in My Mind" where they envision their escape from Saigon and "The Wedding Song" where Chris and Kim pledge themselves to each other and the boys' songs "The Heat is on in Saigon" and "Bui-Doi" which is a tear jerking number about the children left behind at the end of the war. The film of real life children of that era brings more pathos to this terrific scene.

Jennifer Paz who I last reviewed as the Narrator at NSMT in 2010, plays Kim. Jennifer has a powerhouse voice which fills the theater with her strong soprano voice. Her many solos include "Unicorn", "Sun and Moon" reprise and "I Will Die for You'' which she sings to her son. Jennifer displays great tenderness with her son in this show. Her other numbers include "Movie in My Mind" and the many ballads with Chris including "Kim & Chris Dance", "This Money's Yours", the gorgeous duets "Sun & Moon'' and "Last Night of the World" with a fabulous saxophone solo in it, as well as "Please" with John, Chris' best friend. Jennifer's other duets include "I Still Believe" and "Kim and Ellen" with Ellen and the duets with the Engineer, "Kim & Engineer" and "Paper Dragons". Jennifer is flawless in all her numbers, capturing the hearts of the audience with her soulful performance. Brava. The biggest scene stealer in the show is Francis Jue as the Engineer. He helps the GI's by supplying them with girls in his sex shop called Dreamland and later on entices the tourists in a Bangkok sex shop. Francis gives the audience the comic moments needed to escape from the harsh reality of the war. The character is reminiscent of the Emcee in "Cabaret" at times. Francis is a triple threat performer who wows you with his talent. His voice is incredible and his most impressive numbers are the well known vaudeville type song "The American Dream" where he sings about finally escaping from Bangkok, "If You Want to Die in Bed" which vocally is reminiscent of Judas in "Jesus Christ Superstar", ''The Night of the Dragon" where he pleads for his life before the Communists, "What a Waste" where he and the male chorus sing about his new sex shop and his two songs with Kim. Francis's performance captivates you all night long. Jason Forbach plays Chris with the needed anguish and pathos the part calls for. His awesome tenor voice soars off the charts in his first solo "Why, God, Why?" where he wonders why he finally found the girl of his dreams in the hell of Vietnam. This number is reminiscent of "Younger Than Springtime" from "South Pacific". He also sings in the two ballads with Kim, "Sun and Moon" and "Last Night of the World" which displays the raw emotions of being in love but unable to control your destiny. Jason is marvelous as Chris exploring all the emotions of this character and delivering the goods excellently. His amazing voice reaches up to a high B natural. Isabella Shee plays Kim and Chris' young son, Tam who doesn't utter a word but captures your heart from the first entrance with his mother.

Chris' best friend, John is played by Rodrick Covington who makes this soldier buddy into a warm and caring friend, eventually helping Chris to find his long lost son. Rodrick as John displays his strong voice in the emotion packed "Bui-Doi" which opens the second act. It is sung with terrific harmonization of the men's chorus. He also sings in many numbers including the helicopter escape, "Please' with Kim and "Ellen & Chris". Kim's cousin Thuy who she was pledged to be married to, by her parents many years ago is played by Devin Ilaw who is the best Thuy I have ever seen. Thuy is the villain of the show who tries to take Tam away from Kim. Devin oozes the right amount of evilness as this repressive agent of the Viet Cong. He displays his strong tenor voice in "Thuy's Intervention", "The Night of the Dragon", "The Coo Coo Princess", "Thuy's Death" and "Thuy's Ghost". Chris' American wife, Ellen is excellently played by Haley Swindal who is a statuesque blonde and reminds you of a young Liz Callaway.  She conveys her confusion at Chris' bad dreams and behavior  and as Ellen shows her eventual realization of the horrors he suffered in Vietnam. Her fantastic voice is heard in the counterpoint song with Kim called "I Still Believe" and in the confrontation songs called "Kim & Ellen" and "Chris & Ellen". Rona Figueroa plays Gigi, one of the Engineer's girls. She displays her lovely voice in the opening montage, the wedding song and "The Movie in My Mind". Kudos to the entire cast and crew for making this epic musical into a stunning and spectacular production that the audience can savor and react emotionally at their powerful presentation. This terrific theatre in the round brings you into the traumatic events of this musical. So be sure to catch "Miss Saigon" at North Shore Music Theatre before time runs out. Tell them Tony sent you. You definitely won't be disappointed.

"Miss Saigon" at the North Shore Music Theatre
By Robin Shaye
November 6, 2013

I attended opening night performance of Miss Saigon at the North Shore Music Theatre on November 6, 2013. I was first introduced to the triple Tony award winning show in the early 1990's. I was immediately captivated by the musical score comprised of catchy melodies, provocative lyrics and beautiful ballads, set among the chaotic last days of the Vietnam War. The story of Miss Saigon is based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly, with a contemporary feel. Love, romance, turmoil, survival and grief are all a part of Miss Saigon, conveyed only within the music, as there is no scripted dialogue.

To keep the audience apprised of the timeline, lighted signs surrounding the stage announced the places and dates from Saigon in 1975, to Atlanta and Ho Chi Minh City in 1978. The scenery was minimal, save for a few tables, chairs and bed that was raised on the stage. The most anticipated special effect of a helicopter landing, North Shore Music Theater did not disappoint as body of the helicopter appeared with effective sounds, lights, and simulated propeller which generated a wind going through the audience. This was my third time seeing Miss Saigon, and the first time the audience was able to experience this effect so realistically. As always, the North Shore Music Theater was amazing in providing wonderful scenery in an unusual setting. However, there was one important part of the show that erred in this production. The film of the Vietnamese children left behind by the American soldiers, was on a screen at the side of the theater and in front of some of the audience, which blocked their view. It was difficult to appreciate the film, the action on stage, and the choir, which was at the opposite side of the theater.

Jennifer Paz played Kim, the Vietnamese girl in love with American marine Chris. I attended Paz's former production at the Ogunquit Playhouse in 2011. Paz has certainly honed her craft in those two years, as her voice was more mature and true. I've learned that not only is Paz a new mother, but she is engaged to former American Idol finalist Anthony Federov, who appears in the show, and is an understudy for lead Chris.

Jason Forbach as Chris was probably the best performer I've seen in the part. With his youthful good looks, and powerful baritone, he conveyed the love, dismay, and anguish of the soldier torn between the love he lost in Vietnam, his new wife, and child he had never met. His duets were Paz were lovely and accurate, with Forbach controlling his vocals so as to not overpower the more delicate Paz.

Francis Jue, as the Engineer was appropriately crafty and shady for the part of the Engineer. While his vocals were good, at times he was almost shadowed by the ensemble cast. He was not dynamic enough in groups, but stood well during his solo numbers.

Roderick Covington as soldier John was an adequate vocalist, but his voice lacked the power needed for the role. Covington had one of the most heart wrenching songs when he sings about the lesser discussed collateral damages from the Vietnam war, as a film of those children born out of wedlock was shown. Covington's voice and emotions were lost in the orchestral accompaniment. I wish that had been different, as it is such a moving moment.

Haley Swindal as Chris's wife Ellen unquestionably had one of the most amazing voices in the show. With impressive credentials of a soloist at Carnegie Hall, Swindal played her part with the appropriate amount of grace and compassion.

Devin Ilaw had the role of Thuy the man expecting to marry Kim through an arranged marriage by their parents. With beautiful vocals, he played the role a bit gentler than how the character is usually portrayed.

Lead bargirl, Gigi, played by Rona Figueroa, had a beautiful voice, however it was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra. This appeared to be a general distraction throughout the production.

Miss Saigon may be disturbing to very young children. However, it provides an important part of a historic event that is seldom discussed. The story of Miss Saigon will haunt you long after you've left the theater.

Miss Saigon will be running until Sunday, November 17. Directed and Choreographed by Richard Stafford, "Miss Saigon," with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil is at the North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd Beverly, MA 01915 through November 17 Tickets $45 - $75. Information: (978) 232-7200 or visit

 Kissinger Would Have Cried: MISS SAIGON
Review by Craig Idlebrook
Posted on November 20, 2013     

It's not often that a soap opera can double as a critique of American foreign policy, but North Shore Music Theatre's production of Miss Saigon succeeds in creating a surreal love story in which American exceptionalism finds its gory limits.

The story shifts between the final days of the Vietnam War and its immediate aftermath, weaving a simple and haunting love story between the two eras.  In April, 1975, an American G.I., Chris (Jason Forbach), meets a newly-hired Vietnamese call-girl, Kim (Rona Figueroa), in Saigon, a city whose residents are living on borrowed time.  No one can accept their impending fate, not the Americans, who don't remember the taste of military defeat, nor the Southern Vietnamese, who have nowhere to go.  Instead, they fiddle while the rice paddies are burning.  The only clear-headed character is a quick-witted pimp and bar owner named the Engineer (Francis Jue), who never stops scheming to survive.

Like so many in the city, Kim and Chris fall into a desperate and violent love affair that they try to keep alive through force of will.  But in 1978, Chris, back in America, only must contend with nightmares in his comfortable Atlanta home, while Kim, in Vietnam, still lives them.  The mismatch of desires creates a dangerous spark that can only end badly.

While the play's haunting and simple music and love-story are enough for a good night of theater, Miss Saigon also succeeds as an allegory of America's dangerous ADHD focus on foreign policy.  We are consumed with a country until we are done with it, and the countries we touch will never be the same again, even long after we've moved on elsewhere to contain communism, or terrorism, or whatever -ism is in vogue.

Director Richard Stafford makes all the right calls to maximize the talent of his cast. Jue is allowed full license to bring a beautiful physicality to the Engineer, even while maintaining an eerie realism to the larger-than-life character.  The Engineer could easily have devolved into caricature, but Jue constructs layers upon layers into the character's psyche, until even the Engineer doesn't know what he really thinks.  Paz, in contrast, keeps her mania locked deep inside the lovesick soul of Kim, allowing it to bubble to the surface in a way that makes even her most violent choices seem utterly logical.  Forbach has a compelling voice, but lacks depth as Chris, but even he's well positioned as a romantic hero who ultimately chooses the easy way out.

The helicopter may look a bit sophomoric, but I hate prop centerpieces anyway.  The frantic action of those trying to escape their fates and the stranger-than-fiction tone that Stafford unleashes allow the audience's mind to forget the technical trappings of a play and be transported to a turbulent time where all the rules were broken.

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