Starlight's a little too bright for Miss Saigon.

A Coming-Out Party 

Starlight's a little too bright for Miss Saigon.

The June 29 debut of Starlight Theatre's new $10 million dollar stage was like an upgrade to first class, with the in-flight entertainment being the Kansas City premiere of Miss Saigon. Though at times the show truly soared, it also was marked by moments of distracting turbulence and dispassionate service. As the audience was directed to stand and sing the national anthem at a show about America's greatest shame, one sensed that all would not be perfect for this gala-in-T-shirts. Irony is not among Starlight's greatest assets.

The hype about the new stage had taken on an unwieldy girth. True, the theater staff and its supporters have a lot to be proud of. The Saigon tour hasn't been able to play any other venue in town, and it is a gorgeously mounted event. But for all the gilt, some of Starlight's debits can't be disguised.

Is there any other theater in America that makes its patrons sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" after a lengthy chat about the organization's new flag? This is a theater, not a ball park, and the tradition could be reevaluated.

But that's always been the contradictory nature of Starlight, one of the best drive-ins in the country. Just being outdoors creates insurmountable issues. The curse of having to start a show in the last vestiges of daylight hampered the first 45 minutes. I heard several people discussing a truth at intermission: how much the show came alive once the sun disappeared and David Hersey's impressive lighting design finally was able to register. And what's up with the blinding concession-stand lights going on and off to the right of the stage? A dimmer switch would be great.

It was fun to watch the surprised face of a little boy two rows in front of me when the script sent its first expletive flying. He gave his mother that "I didn't do it" look that comes when a parent discovers a broken cookie jar. The word was merely an "ass," but soon came "shit," "son of a bitch," and "fuck," as well as simulated fornication -- all in the opening Vietnamese brothel scene. Miss Saigon may be the raciest show Starlight's ever brought in, and I would bet the board gets a letter or two about the theater's drop in family values.

What would escape those letter-writers, of course, would be how ungratuitous the language is. This is not Oklahoma, folks, where the sexiest thing on stage is a surrey with fringe on top. It's a show about a prostitute and her grunt lover during an amoral war, and the peddling of flesh at the Pussy Galore nightclub is as much a part of the ambience as the corn and barns of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

One hopes that those audience members were able to put their prudery aside and relish the humanity of Mika Nishida's fine performance as Kim and the eventually engaging work of understudy Niall M. Yoshizumi's Engineer. (The fact that this leading role -- and that of John, played opening night by another understudy, Ronn K. Smith -- was a substitute is part of the danger of tours near a holiday.) Nishida was able to project Kim's sweetness and angst to every one of the nearly 8,000 seats, and, if she wasn't exactly a belter in the style of Lea Salonga, who originated the role, she had a grace that was her very own.

This was not the case with Will Swenson's Chris, the soldier whose impregnation of Kim sets much of the story's wheels in motion. Swenson, according to his biography, "dreamed of playing the role ... since he saw the original cast eight years ago on Broadway," and that's where it should have stopped. His singing was pinched when it wasn't cracking off-key, and he had a serious charisma deficit that made him about as convincing as a G.I. Joe doll that speaks at the pull of a string. Nishida did what she could with their duets, "Sun and Moon" and "The Last Night of the World," but Swenson's mediocrity erased all the emotional charge the numbers could produce even on a bad car radio.

The beauty rendered by composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, whose first big smash was the beloved Les Miserables, has never been in dispute. Their deft mix of Asian-influenced melodies with Broadway spectacle is the reason the show has been such a staple of stages in New York and London and around the world. Even with the sound-from-a-box quality of this tour's heavily miked performers, the lush score superseded the engineering.

And then there's the helicopter. Like the silly dropping chandelier of Phantom of the Opera, this special effect is unduly touted as the be-all and end-all of theatrical handiwork. It's really rather anticlimactic -- the drama in the scene is poor Kim's inability to get to her lover. But when the sound of the chopper's blades took over Swope Park, starting from the speakers in the rear and flying over our heads, people actually looked up and behind, as if expecting a real helicopter to brush their heads. It is a kind of theatrical deception that will keep the magic of theater alive.

Miss Saigon
through July 9
Starlight Theatre in Swope Park


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