Haunting and Evocative ‘Miss Saigon’ Still Resonates

Miss Saigon, national tour Citizen’s Bank Opera House, Boston. [Through June 30. http://www.BroadwayinBoston.com]

By Jules Becker

The United States may be out of Vietnam for decades, but the issue of military intervention still resonates in the 1989 (Broadway, 1991) musical “Miss Saigon.” That resonance is so far-reaching that a similar impact could easily apply to America’s respective involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Boublil & Schonberg show’s disturbing if very entertaining national tour at the Opera House brings up the issue of US intervention again even as it movingly looks at the “Madame Butterfly”-inspired romance of American soldier Chris and Vietnamese young woman Kim.

Anthony Festa and Emily Bautista in ‘Miss Saigon’ at The Opera House.

Fans of the acclaimed musical (Olivier and Tony Awards) know very well that responsibility is as focal a part of it as the young lovers’ relationship. After all, Chris has a wife in the States, and fellow soldier John — who serves as a kind of conscience for his best friend — is trying to keep him grounded as a man. At the same time orphan Kim has lost her parents during the war itself. Eventually of course Chris will meet son Tam whom he fathered.

Behind the scenes but never far from the central plot is the always-maneuvering Engineer, ready to throw anyone under the proverbial bus to land a green card and thereby escape from the war and a pathway to a new life in America. This sleazy pleasure land impresario literally markets young women in Saigon and later young men as well in Bangkok. Tellingly in the show’s best number “The American Dream,” Engineer virtually makes love to the Cadillac that represents success in his conception of the good life. Over and above the grim reality of the Vietnam War is the unending struggle between unprincipled survival at all cost conmen like Engineer — could he be Trump’s favorite musical character? — and well-intentioned if sometimes dangerously clueless combatants like Chris.

Under Laurence Connor’s sharp direction, a largely forceful cast makes that struggle both poignant and powerful. Red Concepcion brings terrific energy and stylish slyness to the role of Engineer. His phrasing and stage movement on “The American Dream” take this showstopper rightly into vocal and visual overdrive. By contrast, he enriches the conman’s Saigon and Bangkok pimping with curiously dark insidiousness.

Emily Bautista has all of Kim’s sweetness and vulnerability. She delivers Kim’s foreshadowing first-act closer “I’d Give My Life for You” with heart-wrenching intensity. Anthony Festa matches Bautista’s vocal strength on romantic duos like “Sun and Moon” but needs to be more convincing conveying Chris’ emotional conflict about Kim and Ellen. J. Daughtry captures John’s caring and inner strength—particularly on “Bui Doi,” the Atlanta-set call for caring about adrift children of American and Vietnamese parentage.

The famed scenes retain all of their power. Choreographer Bob Avian fires up the 1978 Ho Chi Minh City march – complete with a flipping acrobatic trio. Bruno Poet’s striking lighting includes the garish neon red of Engineer’s businesses and the muted mysteriousness of the arrival and exit of the iconic American helicopter. Mick Potter’s all-enveloping sound design complements the evocation of the war.

Chris tellingly speaks of Vietnam as “a place of mystery I never once understood.” By contrast, the fine tour of “Miss Saigon” hauntingly calls for that understanding. By extension, so it goes for Baghdad and Kabul.

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SpeakEasy Musical Looks Back at Early Gay Society with Affection

The View Upstairs, SpeakEasy Stage Company. [Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through June 30. bostontheatrescene.com]

By Jules Becker

Before Pulse, there was the UpStairs Lounge. Both the Orlando former and the now defunct French Quarter, New Orleans latter have stood as welcoming havens for LGBTQ Americans. Whether the deadly 1973 fire at the Lounge was set by an angry ejected gay patron or not (still a fire of “undetermined origin”), both bars have had to deal with homophobic harassment and hatred.

Max Vernon honored the New Orleans bar and the 32 victims of the fire in the 2017 Off-Broadway show, “The View Upstairs.” While the book of the writer-composer’s tuneful musical seems to move too often between Twilight Zone-like moments of 20/20 future sight and an affectionate remembrance, SpeakEasy Stage Company producing artistic director Paul Daigneault is keeping its area premiere winningly intimate.

To achieve that intimacy fully, SpeakEasy Stage has smartly moved for this production to the BCA’s Plaza Theatre (from its mid-size regular residence at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Roberts Theatre). At the Plaza, designer Abby Shenker has added small tables for some audience members to enhance the authenticity of her well-detailed Lounge set with period posters and photos. Dustin Todd Rennell’s costumes follow suit, capturing the wide-ranging period fashions — from bell bottom casualness to blingy glamour. Abigail Wang’s nuanced chandelier lighting and Elektra T. Newman’s 1970’s evoking sound complete the high level of production design.

Eddie Shields and J’royce Jata in SpeakEasy Stage Company production of ‘The View UpStairs.’ (Courtesy Nile Scott Studio)

As varied and vivid as the visuals in the second story UpStage Lounge are the cross-section of frequenting patrons, all well-captured by a strong ensemble under Daigneault’s careful guidance. As in the Marc Crowley play “The Boys in the Band,” the regulars engage in fairly bitchy banter including references to the Berlin Wall, Nixon’s resignation and the legendary opera soprano Leontyne Price.

J’royce Jata is strikingly cocky and self-assured as time-travelling fashion designer and ‘influencer’ Wes, who means to turn the Lounge’s ruins into a high couture house. As the play indicates, the show begins and ends in the present. In this way, Wes becomes a frame figure of telling contrast revealing a time of equality in the future unknown to LGBTQ Americans in the 1970s. He delivers Wes’s confidence on numbers like the optimistic “The Future’s Great” with great heart even if he could do with the kind of high register richness Davron Monroe brings to the flashy role of good-natured drag queen Willie.

Jared Troilo catches pivotal hustler Dale’s loneliness — think of “Mr. Cellophane” in “Chicago” — especially in a vibrant delivery of his character’s solo “Better Than Silence.” Troilo makes his growing bitterness fittingly ominous. Yewande Odetoyinbo has bartender Henri’s tenacity and demonstrates an impressive belt on “The World Outside These Walls.” Eddie Shield captures vulnerable Patrick’s innocence and passionate attraction to Wes. Shawn Verrier catches Hispanic Freddy’s pathos dancing in women’s attire. Many theatergoers are likely to compare Freddy to Paul (with a drag queen back story) in “A Chorus Line” — with the difference that the former is buoyed by his mother Inez, played with great warmth by Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda. Russell Garrett displays the right inner strength playing prayer-leading Richard. Will McGarrahan finds closeted piano player Buddy’s angst and defensiveness, and Michael Levesque has the right nastiness as corrupt Cop.

Brilliantly Adventurous and Rare Sondheim at Lyric Stage

Pacific Overtures, Lyric Stage Company of Boston. (through June 16. 617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com)

By Jules Becker

It should come as no surprise that “Pacific Overtures” continues to be one of Stephen Sondheim’s most rarely produced musicals. Arguably his most ambitious, the Tony Award-nominated 1976 work calls for a kabuki staging in which men take on both male and female roles and stage hands dressed in black change sets in full view of the audience. At the same time, East meets West thematically and musically as performers tackle a dauntingly clever score combining non-pentatonic pieces and Western numbers.

If anyone locally is up to these challenges it is Sondheim maven Spiro Veloudos (inspired editions of “A Little Night Music” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” among others). Not surprisingly, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston producing artistic director captures both the style and the substance of “Pacific Overtures” in his company’s brilliantly adventurous revival.

Make no mistake. This is not the controversial 2017 Off-Broadway revival by John Doyle (of no-frills “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” editions fame) that cut the distinctive number “Chrysanthemum Tea” and the menacing first act-closing “Lion Dance” by America’s Commodore Perry. Here the “Tea” song has the right dark humor. Micheline Wu’s crisp choreography gives Kai Chao riveting moments of fiery movement in Perry’s dance. By contrast, Veloudos and company are exploring the full richness of Sondheim and book author John Weidman’s conception and the striking poetry that runs through the musical’s evocative score.

Carl Hsu and Micheline Wu with other cast members of the Lyric Stage Company’s production of ‘Pacific Overtures.’ (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Right from the start, Lyric Stage Company embraces the show’s vivid respect for Japanese culture in Janie E. Howland’s elegant scenic design — most notably in high screens that form a kind of Japanese mural one moment and revolve to reflect a different attitude at another. Gail Astrid Buckley’s telling costumes smartly capture the respective buffoonish demeanors of the British, Dutch, Russian and French admirals and their humorous posturing as they arrive one by one after Perry makes his 1853 trip to Japan with representation from President Millard Fillmore.

In his playbill director’s notes, Veloudos notes that “Pacific Overtures” resonates even today in terms of American or other Western involvement in foreign countries. This singularly thoughtful musical also stands as a constant reminder that the best path to understanding between countries is often mutual cultural respect.

Veloudos rightly takes his cue from Sondheim, who sublimely details the historic visit from a Japanese point of view through a narrator known as Reciter — a role sharply played by Lisa Yuen. Sondheim and Weidman respectfully invoke the name Nippon for Japan. In a show purposely lacking a clear central character, the focal relationship between samurai turned government official Kayama and fisherman turned samurai Manjiro becomes the running pivotal element. Carl Hsu as Kayama and Sam Hamashima as Manjiro seem to establish a friendship via haiku in the engaging number “Poems.” Hsu catches Kayama’s uncertainty about Western ways and culture in the lyric-strong number “A Bowler Hat.” In a versatile gender-bending ensemble, Gary Thomas Ng is a standout playing men and women — particularly Shogun’s Mother. Micheline Wu captures the vulnerability and angst of Tamate (Kayama’s wife). Veteran Lyric Stage music director Jonathan Goldberg conducts the intimately small orchestra with matching sensitivity.

In the playbill, this gifted director speaks of taking a little break from Sondheim for a while. This critic looks at this masterful revival of “Pacific Overtures” and asks that Veloudos return to the composer’s repertoire as soon as possible to tackle the rarely staged “Passion.”

‘The Return’ Raises POV Questions for Political Theater

The Return, Israeli Stage. [Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through May 19. israelistage.com, 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com]

By Jules Becker

Guy Ben-Aharon is a gifted stage provocateur. For nearly a decade the founding artistic director of Israeli Stage has challenged Hub theatergoers to confront a variety of views — cultural, ethnic and political — related to topical issues and the human condition. The strong productions of the plays in question have introduced many local audience members to the work of such important Israeli writers as Anat Gov and Joshua Sobol. Theatergoers’ personal positions aside, these comedies and dramas have consistently presented their respective scenarios with complex and far from predictable examinations.

Regrettably — at least to this critic — “The Return,” the company’s last effort, seems to be an artistically compromised work despite first-rate production values.

The New England premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion begins promisingly enough with a woman facing a man at a distinctive gleaming white setting designed by Cristina Todesco with spare elegance and lit with nuance by Jeff Adelberg. The woman turns out to be an Israeli back home after several years in America, while the man is a Palestinian mechanic in charge at a station where automobiles are repaired. Under Ben-Aharon’s sharp guidance, a face-off is clearly developing between the play’s sole characters.

That face-off gradually evolves into a kind of set-up understanding in which the Israeli woman Talia seems to totally take Palestinian Yakov’s side with regard to Israelis and Israeli policies. No one should suggest that Israel or any country is always right, but the authors, Palestinian-American Hanna Eady and American Edward Mast, have Talia ask Yakov very early in the 65-minute drama whether he gets paid enough by his Israeli employer, whether he receives overtime and whether he is paid what Israelis are paid. Do the playwrights want her to be politically correct here? Do they want theatergoers to assume that all Israeli employers pay less than Palestinian ones?

Talia has every right to try to make amends to Yakov for the years he served in prison for “rape by deception” (a controversial 2008 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that can be applied when an Arab does not reveal before consensual sex with an Israeli that he is not Jewish). At the same time, one can argue that the writers are generally guilty of artistic imbalance.

That apparent imbalance increases later as reference is made to Yakov’s 1948 home, which Israelis are said to have razed to the ground. Surprisingly, Talia never mentions that Israel was attacked at that time by Arab forces from surrounding countries opposed to the very existence of the Jewish state. She also never mentions a 1929 massacre in which Israelis were killed by Arabs. Most of all, there is no mention of Hamas, the anti-Israel part of Palestinian leadership. No one should say that a play has to alternate between opposing positions at all times. The problem in “The Return,” though, is that an Israeli character never seems to defend any justified actions by her country. By comparison, a writer like Sean O’Casey consistently presented opposing positions or views in his plays.

Still, as always, the acting in an Israeli Stage production is superb. Philana Mia has all of Talia’s vulnerability and sensitivity with Yakov. Nael Nacer as Yakov makes the most of telling moments of restraint as well as a climactic emotional outburst. See “The Return” for Mia, Nacer and Ben-Aharon’s taut direction.

As of now, Ben-Aharon’s next theater projects have yet to be announced. One hopes that the eventual plans of this major talent will include a Palestinian play as balanced as the Israeli ones that have distinguished Israeli Stage.

Les Mis Returns…Again – Well-Sung and Sharply Staged

Les Miserables, presented by Broadway in Boston at Boston Opera House,through April 28. 800-982-2787 or BroadwayinBoston.com

By Jules Becker

Entrenched poverty, children falling through the cracks, totally disproportionate jail terms, the best and the brightest lost in wars fighting injustice – Victor Hugo was battling these enduring wrongs and tragedies in “Les Miserables,” the classic story of now iconic edgy hero Jean Valjean and the similarly vulnerably and unfortunate French minors and adults around him. For decades that moving and timeless story has found visual and vocal re-validation in the mega-Tony Award winner (1987).

Nick Cartell as Jean ValJean in the U.S. tour of Les Misérables.

So it goes with the well-sung and sharply staged edition at the Opera House. If you know the earlier visits with fairly massive barricade sets, you might be disappointed by this production’s relatively no-frills look. Still, the projection design realized by Fifty-Nine Productions in producer Cameron Mackintosh’s new presentation of the Boublil-Schoenberg musical is very vivid – especially the evocation of the sewers through which Valjean escapes with eventual son-in-law Marius.

While the complexities of the original novel become diagrammatic in the musical, the vicissitudes of Valjean’s life and the ongoing conflict between him and obsessed pursuer Javert remain riveting. Nick Cartell does well capturing the dark side of Valjean and the softer side once he becomes a mayor. His rendition of “Bring Him Home” has properly lush high notes. Best of all here is Josh Davis, richly one-track as Javert – most notably on his trenchant delivery of “Stars.” The other standout is Paige Smallwood as ill-fated but remarkably big-hearted Eponine. Her plaintive “On My Own” gives fresh expression to this poignant lament.

If you are one of the few who have never seen “Les Miserables,” this staging will certainly move you. Buffs who have seen it umpteen times may not be blown away by this tour – although it starts right on time as did its predecessor – an achievement in its own right. Even so, give this one, one day more.

Zeitgeist Exits with Provocative and Powerful Portrait of Family in the Crosshairs

Trigger Warning, Zeitgeist Stage Company [Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 4. bostontheatrescene.com]

By Jules Becker

Trust David Miller and Zeitgeist Stage Company to tackle issues as formidable as front page realities. Over the course of the company’s 18-year history, its productions have largely been an impressive who’s who of provocative modern plays — from powerful younger generation-focused dramas like “Spring Awakening” (the Wedekind play itself) and “Punk Rock” to topical works like the underrated musical “Enron.”

Even so, the resourceful and versatile artistic director has been able to fit in works by comedy writer extraordinaire Alan Ayckbourn and the late great sharp-eyed visionary Edward Albee. Stagings of powerhouse modern classics like the Holocaust-set “Bent” and AIDS-focused “The Normal Heart” have poignantly demonstrated Miller’s attention to different aspects of LGBTQ life. Now Zeitgeist is ending this multi-IRNE and Norton Award run with a very sadly topical world premiere Jacques Lamarre drama entitled “Trigger Warning.”

(L to R): Liz Adams and Steve Auger in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Trigger Warning.

As Miller explains in the staging’s playbill, “Trigger Warning” is the result of a Zeitgeist commission and close work with the company at the BCA for two years. Lamarre, he reveals, lives in Connecticut close to the sites of three mass shootings over recent years. The playwright’s unique perspective, Miller continues, is to tell the story of the play’s shooting from the point of view of the family of the shooter.

Lamarre smartly opens his play — set in a Plainville, Connecticut “today and the days that follow” — at the home of the Murphys, the fictional middle class family in question. Gradually contractor Andrew — also called Murphy — and his realtor wife Jackie learn the details of the shooting and the enormity of what Travis has done. Lamarre has purposely kept Travis unseen to focus on the reactions and feelings of the parents and daughter Meghan, whom her brother actually wounded during the shooting, described as the worst in American history.

Andrew is an NRA member, a fact that now takes on heightened importance to all three. As guilt feelings abound, their seemingly tranquil family reaches a crossroads. Jackie and Andrew question themselves and each other as to what they did wrong and what they should have done. Meghan begins to find more comfort with her aunt Amy than with her parents.

Could Travis’ crime have been prevented? As recriminations escalate, so do questions both on a personal level here and on a general level with regard to all such shootings and violence. Can schools and/or parents predict the volatility and dangerousness of a child like Travis? Could stronger gun control make a difference? Can mental health treatment help? Can religion help? Can marriages and families withstand such extreme situations? Could even worse alternatives ensue? Lamarre essentially wants all theatergoers to question themselves and examine their own reactions, feelings and views as well as those of the Murphys.

(L to R): Kelley Estes and Liz Adams in Trigger Warning. (Photos by David J. Miller)

Do not expect any facile answers from Lamarre. Do expect a thoughtful and highly intense drama (one appropriate for teenagers and up) very well acted. Liz Adams captures all of Jackie’s outrage and deepening vulnerability as the Murphys are more and more shunned. Steve Auger has all of Andrew’s impulsiveness and frustration. Adams and Augurs quick verbal volleys as parents and human beings are rightly disturbing. Lilly Brenneman finds all of Meghan’s growing hurt about her parents’ seeming cluelessness about fully consoling her and her telling trust in her aunt.

Kelley Estes properly underplays reasonable Amy except in fiery moments between the sisters. Holly Newman has Attorney Bates’ curious calmness. Naeemah A. White-Peppers, in a very welcome return to Zeitgeist Stage, plays three different characters — an FBI agent, a reverend and an angry neighbor — and keeps each one vivid and distinct — especially buck-passing Reverend Tracy, who effectively excommunicates Jackie from his congregation.

Michael Flowers doubles as set and projection designer. His set has the right lived-in simplicity for the Murphys. Special praise goes to his projection of coverage of the shooting over wall art and a framed photo of the parents and Meghan as though to say that they cannot escape from the aftermath’s damaging hold. Michael Clark Wonson’s lighting matches the drama’s intensity.

“Trigger Warning” fires a cautionary call to all parents and friends and family with haunting immediacy. For their part, Miller and Zeitgeist are ending an 18-year run with a gem of a production that makes their exit from the BCA Black Box all the more sad. In his playbill farewell, Miller looks forward to being a part of audiences for the productions of many deserving area companies. Still, the Boson arts community must not give up on saving Zeitgeist. This is a unique Hub keeper.

Bronx Tale Full of Vitality and Verve

A Bronx Tale, national tour presented by Boston in Broadway at Boston Opera House, through April 14. BroadwayinBoston.com

By Jules Becker

It can be quite a challenge for a show to live up to the kind of high praise that compares it to two unquestionably great ones. A case in point is the earnest stage version of “A Bronx Tale.” From the start this earnest and lively adaptation of the touching Chaz Palminteri film of the same name does possess affinities to the landmark musical “West Side Story” and the bio-show “Jersey Boys.” If “A Bronx Tale” proves high-stepping and lively, it nevertheless needs more thoughtful reflection on its main characters’ very different points of you. Even so, the high-stepping tour at the Boston Opera House has a good deal of heart.

That heart began, of course, with Chazz Palminteri, The multiple talent-musical book author, playwright and actor (the movie “Bullets Over Broadway” among others) saw a killing from the stoop of his home as a preteen and turned his childhood odyssey to maturity into a play, film and musical. The 2016 musical is faithful to Calogero’s (Chazz’s real name) coming of age story in the moving film, but somehow the show’s book does not plumb his experiences as profoundly as the 1993 film did. Still, the leads and the enemble cast members – under the sure direction of Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks – do their very good best to make the proceedings lively and the generally tuneful Alan Menken-Glenn Slater score appealing.

Frankie Leoni (Shane Pry at some performances) has the right tenacity and fire as Young Calogero, especially on his signature number “I Like It.” Joe Barbara captures mob boss Sonny’s volatility and his parental caring for Calogero, whom he nicknames ‘C.’ His rich delivery of the show’s arguably best song “One of the Great Ones” is a clear highlight. Richard H. Blake – from the Broadway cast – catches all of the frustration of C’s father Lorenzo as a hardworking MTA bus driver and his paternal tenderness. Brianna Marie-Bell is winning as C’s African-American girlfriend.Choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s dance numbers are largely fast-paced and eye-catching.

Unlike the taut film, the musical version of “A Bronx Tale” seems to suffer from an identity crisis. The gang scenes sometimes suggest the combat in the so-so stage edition of “Saturday Night Fever” more than “West Side Story.” The friendship of C and his buddies and the chronicle itself fall short of the sharp depiction of “Jersey Boys.” Even so, see “A Bronx Tale” for its vitality and verve.