Thursday, March 23, 2017

There May Be a Helicopter, But Newcomer Noblezada Truly Soars

Review: Miss Saigon

Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada in the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon

To answer the question that is probably on your mind: yes, the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon still features a real helicopter landing onstage during a particularly climatic scene. To be honest, despite the clever stagecraft used to accomplish the task, the helicopter's arrival is actually one of the less interesting moments in a overall very fine production. The anguished screams of the Vietnamese villagers left behind when the copter departs will stay with you longer, reaffirming that emotional truth is the lifeblood of this sweeping musical epic, not mechanical spectacle.

The plot of Miss Saigon, an updated retelling of Puccini's classic opera Madame Butterfly by the same songwriting team behind Les Miserables, chronicles the star crossed love affair of orphaned Vietnamese teen Kim and American GI Chris against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the eventual fall of Saigon. It is a setting rife with conflict and big emotions, although the script's eagerness to get to those emotions sometimes undercuts their believability. Chris and Kim's first meeting vacillates between a love and hate in a manner more appropriate to farce than epic drama, and several of the major power ballads arrive before we've had adequate time to invest in the characters singing them. Thankfully, the pacing improves tremendously once the lovers are separated about 30 minutes into the evening, making for a truly engrossing journey as they struggle to find their way back to one another after the US military pulls out of Vietnam.

In the original production, the role of Kim launched a then unknown 20-year-old named Lea Salonga to stardom. The chances of such an occurrence happening again would seem improbably, and yet the producers have once again struck gold casting their leading lady. From the moment 21-year-old Eva Noblezada enters during the show's opening number, she cuts a commanding figure despite her small frame, instantly establishing both Kim's vulnerability and inner strength without uttering a sound. And then she sings, demonstrating a vocal prowess and control that appears beyond her years, seamlessly singing every note of Claude-Michel Schonberg's complex score with extreme precision and searing emotional honesty. It is a masterful, star making portrayal that channels the best of her predecessor while leaving her own unique stamp on the role, and is the key to this production's overall success.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Noblezada's counterpart, Alistair Brammer as Chris. The British thespian certainly has the All-American good looks to play the object of Kim's affections, but despite an uncomfortably frequent amount of making out he lacks much chemistry with his costar. None of their shared scenes during the show's first act really sell the idea that these two are instantly attracted to one another, and it is actually easier to buy into their relationship when Kim and Chris are separated, with Noblezada's sensational performance and sincere longing grounding the romance. Brammer is certainly trying his hardest, which is part of the problem as the sheer amount of effort visible in his performance proves distracting.

The third of Miss Saigon's key roles is filled by Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, essentially Kim's pimp whose primary goal is to secure a visa and emigrate to America. It is a somewhat problematic role, given far more stagetime than is warranted by the character's only tangential relationship to Kim's storyline. Briones is quite good in the role, a tad hammy but not more than the production can bear. He also does an excellent job with his big 11 o'clock number "The American Dream," to the point where you almost forget that the song doesn't seem to have a purpose in the show other than providing a break from the heavy emotions of the second act. (It's tempting to assume the song is a critique of said dream, but if so then it undermines the sincere desire of practically every Vietnamese character to reach the US, a desire they keep through the final tableau.)

There are a few more standouts among the cast, particular Nicholas Christopher as another American GI named John. An imposing figure with a beautiful voice, Christopher delivers one of the show's most haunting ballads, a song about abandoned war orphans called "Bui Doi." Devin Ilaw is quite compelling as Kim's spurned fiance Thuy, and if Katie Rose Clark can't quite make sense of her extremely compacted character arc as Chris' wife her talent and innate likability go a long way towards solving the script issues involving her.

The production has been given a striking visual flare by set designers Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, whose talents extend much further than the aforementioned helicopter. The pair conjure the lived in squalor of a Vietnamese strip club, the seedy slums of Bangkok, and the imposing military might of Vietnam's new regime by using gorgeously detailed sets that are impressive without being distracting. The lighting design by Bruno Poet does an excellent job of establishing mood thanks to its bold use of color, and the contrast of the set's dull browns and greys with the bright reds and blues of the lights and Andreane Neofitou's costumes create a series of evocative images throughout the evening.

Director Laurence Connor makes excellent use of the set to create continually intriguing stage pictures, striking the right balance between the grand historical sweep and intimate character moments of the story. The musical staging by Bob Avian is also impressive, particularly the precisely choreographed, acrobatic filled "The Morning of the Dragon" which follows a 3 year time jump in the narrative. In fact, one could argue that this number is a far more effective and memorable bit of theatrical spectacle than the aforementioned helicopter, one that is able to support the story better by not being so technically involved.

Although heavily influenced by the original, Tony-winning production, this Saigon succeeds in making a show in danger of becoming a period piece feel fresh and relevant. It is at its strongest when it focuses on Kim, allowing Noblezada's performance to shine through and carry the day with the complexity and grace of actresses twice her age. The production occasionally falls victim to the bombast that defines many of these British mega musicals from the 1980s and 90s, particularly during the show's opening scenes, but it steadily improves in polish and emotional complexity as the night goes on until it becomes genuinely engrossing. Brammer's performance holds the show back from fully achieving the heights it so clearly aspires to, but in the end if Noblezada can fall in love with him nightly, then perhaps the rest of us can too.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Norma's Still Big, It's Just the Set That Got Small

Review: Sunset Boulevard

Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis and Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Of the many lovely moments in the current revival of Sunset Boulevard playing at the Palace Theatre, the one which best highlights this production's strengths occurs midway through the second act. While visiting the Paramount Studios lot, a spotlight hits faded silent film star Norma Desmond, embodied by a sensational Glenn Close reprising her Tony-winning performance. A glorious swell of music from the 40-piece orchestra accompanies the moment, before Desmond tentatively begins the show's signature ballad, "As If We Never Said Goodbye." Close masterfully builds the song over the course of the next 4 minutes, transporting audiences back to Desmond's glory days in a revelatory performance that rightly earns showstopping levels of applause. In the course of that one song, the full virtues of the scaled back physical production, increased orchestra size, and Close's near-legendary performance crystallize into musical theatre nirvana, a breathtakingly theatrical moment that is nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

If the rest of the show doesn't quite reach such dizzying heights, it is not for lack of trying. When Sunset Boulevard originally opened to a then-record breaking advance sale in 1994, the show won 8 Tony Awards due primarily to a lack of competition (the only other new musical of the season was the revue Smokey Joe's Cafe). For better and for worse, the show typifies composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's style, with an emphasis on lush melodies and almost through-composed scores that value big emotions over subtlety and nuance. Which makes director Lonny Price's decision to revive the show as a semi-staged concert which literally places the orchestra (and by extension the music) center stage a stroke of genius. Conductor Kristen Blodgette brings out an incredible amount of texture and sophistication from Webber's score, and hearing it performed live with such a large and accomplished group of musicians is a true joy. And while the book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton can come across as somewhat clunky, the sweeping melodies and grand scope of the music largely compensate for it.

The other smart decision in Price's staging is to pare things down to a minimal, unit set designed by James Noone. The original production famously lost money due in no small part to the exorbitant running costs incurred by its mammoth mansion set, which many felt distracted from the storytelling. By eliminating much of the technical wizardy, Price allows the story to take center stage, giving its themes about the addictive and destructive nature of fame more room to breath. The human story of struggling writer Joe Gillis getting pulled into Norma Desmond's delusions of grandeur is plenty interesting on its own, and not being distracted by giant sets helps keep the focus where it ought to be. (Tracy Christensen and Anthony Powell's costumes provide a suitable level of grandeur for this tale of fame and excess.)

The amount of gravitas Close brings to the role of Desmond cannot be overstated, anchoring the production with her utter believability and unparalleled command of her craft. From the moment she makes her entrance at the top of the show's grand staircase, it is clear you are in the presence of a star. Norma's first big number describes how in her heyday, the silent screen actress could hold an audience captive "With One Look;" Close can and repeatedly does do the same, capturing Norma's oversized nature without descending into camp. She is convincingly, compelling unhinged, but there is a tragedy to her Norma that in glimpsed during her repeated fits of melancholy, such as a devastating scene towards the end of Act I where she fears Joe will abandon her. Close's ability to act through song also more than makes up for any difficulties she might have with Webber's admittedly challenging score, and she still has the big money notes when it counts.

Close's three costars, all reprising their performances from the West End staging of this production, are quite strong as well. Michael Xavier makes for an excellent Joe Gillis, functioning as our entryway into Norma's world and sharing the audience's mix of incredulity and fascination. His scenes with Close form the backbone of the narrative, and they all sparkle with a mesmerizing push and pull between attraction and revulsion. Siobhan Dillon is fantastic as young Betty Schaeffer, the studio assistant who finds herself falling for Joe even while he becomes a kept man at Norma's mansion. And Fred Johanson is suitably imposing as Norma's unerringly loyal butler Max, a foreboding presence with a gloriously rich bass voice and eyes which are deep pools of unspoken emotion.

Ultimately, this Sunset Boulevard makes a strong case for the show being one of Lloyd Webber's more compelling works, adding a layer of narrative depth to his typically lush, ballad-heavy compositional style. Price's direction and minimalist staging keeps the focus on the music and the story, allowing the show to feel personal despite the inarguable bigness of many of the musical numbers. The cast is quite strong, with Glenn Close in particular offering the kind of performance that Broadway legends are made of. This staging doesn't quite overcoming some of the shortcomings of the show's book, but as long as Close is onstage supported by that massive orchestra, you aren't likely to care.