A slightly altered perspective
The Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra (a.k.a. CATS) is a unique venture that mounts one elaborate show annually. It’s done comedies, tragedies, stagings of ancient Asian classics, and American tales of immigration, internment, and assimilation. This year, it’s doing the musical Miss Saigon, marking the production company’s 20th anniversary.
Miss Saigon is a Vietnam War tale, modeled on Puccini’s tragic opera Madama Butterfly, and featuring a doomed romance between an American soldier and a Vietnamese bar girl as the South Vietnamese government disintegrates. The Broadway production relied on spectacular effects: an evacuation helicopter and a huge American car. More recent versions (like the 2011 Music Circus staging) used less eye-popping substitutions—making the love story (and its, some would say “limited,” credibility) even more important.
This CATS production connects in this regard. David Holmes (as soldier Chris) and April Lam (a recent grad of UCLA’s theater program, playing Kim) generate sparks onstage and sing well together. Director Susan Mason mingles their swift romance with chaos in a city where desperate people are trying to flee.
Professional actor Jared Lee plays the corrupt, endlessly reinventive Engineer, and Lee is remarkable, lusting after luxury in his big number (“The American Dream”) with flashes of Al Jolson-style vaudeville. (And, keep in mind, Jolson was an immigrant who made it big in America pretending to be something he was not, just like the Engineer.)
Director Mason also makes a very savvy choice in that same scene, surrounding Lee with American icons—Elvis, Uncle Sam, Shirley Temple, Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and Marilyn Monroe—each played by an Asian-American (as the Engineer would dream them).
It’s a huge production—costumes, a seven-piece band, etc.—and not entirely glitch-free. But the story carries you swiftly along, and it’s told with greater attention to an Asian viewpoint, illuminating the material in ways I’ve not encountered in sleeker mainstream versions. Good going, CATS!