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'Saigon' has both drama and dazzle

No "steel and rivets" helicopter actually lands on stage in Big League Theatricals production of "Miss Saigon." That's because the show, which opened at the Wang Theatre last night, is not, in fact, the famous Cameron Mackintosh production renowned for that flying coup de theater. Rather, as the program book parses it, this incarnation is "adapted from the Original Production."

What Big League does offer is a show with lots of heart. And that's saying something considering the synthetic, manipulative, derivative, anti-American nature of the show. Under Mitchell Lemsky's direction and with a terrific cast of young performers, this "Miss Saigon" emphasizes the intimate drama taking place between its protagonists. Although there are big production numbers and stage effects, they don't intrude on the story of a doomed romance during the fall of Saigon. What's more, the sound system (so often a disaster at the Wang) is capably managed so that the audience can actually understand the dialogue.

The big razzle-dazzle numbers don't disappoint either. Instead of the "real" helicopter, there is an enormous projected craft that "hovers" upstage to the accompaniment of very realistic, throbbing engine noises. The Engineer's loathsome but lovable paean to America as the ultimate land of opportunity for a grasping pimp, is also suitably flashy.

The cast is headed by Jennifer Paz, who originated the role of Kim in the Boston premiere. Paz, who just joined Big League's national tour, is a delicate, sweet-faced woman who stands out from the crowd of debased revelers we see in the first scene. Her innocence and goodness shine throughout the show. She also sings with power and persuasion.

With his rumpled blond hair and uninhibited manner, Alan Gillespie, as Chris the American GI, is similarly committed in his portrayal. Wallace Smith, who plays Chris's buddy John, is touching -- particularly in the scene where he pleads for support for Vietnamese/American children fathered by US soldiers. Rachel Kopf, as Ellen, Chris's American wife, offers a piercing look at the dilemma she faces in this tragedy. Mario Tadeo, as Thuy, seems improbably cast as the Vietnamese villain, but he makes his claims on Kim with suitable menace.

Jon Jon Biones, in the role of the Engineer, pulls out all the stops in his portrayal of this slick, rapacious, amoral hustler.

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