KPBS AIRDATE: September 16, 2005
What happens when fantasies go awry? The answers lie in a musical tragedy and a madcap comedy. Though tremendously different in form and content, “Miss Saigon” and “Valhalla” deal with moments of history – and finding, even if only for an instant, love and beauty amid the squalor of everyday life.
In his latest campy creation, playwright Paul Rudnick, who’s given us “Jeffrey,” “I Hate Hamlet” and “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” benefits once again from the perfect playpen, Diversionary Theatre, and the ideal interpreter, director Tim Irving. “Valhalla” intricately cross-cuts two centuries and two coming-out, coming-of-age stories. The historical King Ludwig II, the 19th century “Mad King of Bavaria,” is juxtaposed with the fictional James Avery, a small-town Texan growing up in the 1930s. Each, in his own way, is fixated on beauty. One bankrupts his country by building fairy-tale castles. The other steals, lies and manipulates to achieve the objects of his desire. In a decidedly warped dénouement, the two disparate worlds collide. Rudnick has been called the gay Neil Simon; his queeny one-liners are uproarious. Irving has assembled a stellar cast of six comic talents who morph into multiple, gender-bending characters, thanks to Shulamit Nelson’s marvelous, quick-change costumes. The play is silly, over the top, full of ornate excesses and Wagnerian opera; the second act plot twists strain credulity, but you laugh so hard through the first act, you barely notice. When beauty becomes an obsession, it can be dangerous – and hilarious.
Finding a little island of beauty in the horror that was 1975 Vietnam is another story altogether. ‘The heat is on in Saigon,’ as the song goes; the city’s about to fall, and Chris, a U.S. Marine, is burned out. Then he meets the Vietnamese country-girl, Kim, on her first, forced night in a sex-club, and both their lives are transformed. A schmaltzy riff on Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” the poperetta “Miss Saigon” is a sentimental love story, forged in the clash between two cultures. When Chris is airlifted out, in that famous helicopter, Kim is left behind, with her memories and a bulge in her belly. She’s certain her lover will come back. Much later, under far different – and ultimately tragic – circumstances, he does.
Starlight Theatre, in its 59th anniversary year, is presenting the regional theater premiere of the 1991 blockbuster that was created by the team that gave us “Les Miz” — Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. The set and costumes are beautiful, the singers and musicians are terrific, and the large-cast production is excellent, under Brian Wells’ assured direction.
So, in your own quest for beauty, you can escape from everyday life – at the theater.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.