There's an added layer of enjoyment watching the "Madame Butterfly"-inspired "Miss Saigon" among an audience that, for the most part, is unfamiliar with the story and music - in particular a production that's well-crafted and well-executed.
Unexpected tears and gasps filled the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center for nearly three hours as Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities proved, as it did a few seasons ago with "Into the Woods," that the company can meet Broadway standards with musically challenging works.
The 1989 follow-up to "Les Miserables" elevated creators Alain Boublil and Claude- Michel Schonberg to rare air by adding a second modern masterpiece to their repertoire. They have yet been able to make a third critical or commercial hit, but "Miss Saigon" remains fresh and thoroughly captivating.
CLOSBC wisely cast Jennifer Paz, who appeared as the tragic heroine, Kim, in the show's first national tour, and who has only improved over the last decade. And the company hit a home run by casting Kevin Bailey as the Engineer, who could give Tony-winning Jonathan Pryce a run for his money.
It's easy to forgive a few subtle set changes and technical issues with a production this difficult, particularly when director Stephanie A. Coltrin and her cast got all the important elements right.
Energy was high from the moment the curtain went up to reveal the seedy Dreamland Nightclub, run by the Engineer (Bailey) and frequented by Marines looking to crown one of the club's prostitutes Miss Saigon, and win a chance to take her to a back room.
But this first night, G.I. Chris (Eric Kunze) falls in love with a newcomer, Kim (Paz), who, with her home destroyed and her family killed, has no way to survive.
The two fall in love at first sight, but lousy timing - the impending fall of Saigon - forces the lovers apart. Regional theater favorite Misty Cotton portrays Chris' wife, Ellen, and Harrison White is Chris' best friend, John.
Those unfamiliar with the story, or "Madame Butterfly," should be aware that except for a few darkly comical comments by the Engineer, there are no laughs. But emotions are plentiful and powerful, most supplied by Paz, who injects strength into the vulnerable Kim.
When Paz sings, "I have a heart like the sea. A million dreams are in me," it's aching because it rings completely true.
Coltrin pushes the pace hard, allowing for breathing space only when necessary, such as with the quiet, remorseful, "The Movie in My Mind," and a delicate rendition of "The Wedding."
"I Still Believe" earns its showstopper status, thanks to the way Cotton's powerhouse vocals blend with Paz's.
Bailey, who as the Engineer maintains a hard edge without ever losing his likability, is extremely impressive. Bailey's face shows a mix of desperation and determination, and when he pours all his energy into the fantasy-driven "The American Dream," it's hard not to root for the smarmy Engineer.
Lucky Cardwell's set design, framed by collapsible fabric screens, is effective, despite a few pauses needed to switch out a few locales. And, yes, those who are wondering, the iconic helicopter and second-act Cadillac are present.
The helicopter landing, though impressive, wasn't needed for this "Saigon" to succeed, but CLOSBC pulled out all the stops, and deserves kudos for the results.