You can buy a toy helicopter at the Dollar Store, but Ten Red Hen Productions has beaten that price and delivered the goods in the form of The 99-cent Miss Saigon at the Willard Middle School Metalshop Theater, with much, much more (although the program c over displays a tiny ‘copter propelled by big chopsticks into a wide-open mouth as its proud logo).
“99-cent” refers to the stripped-down look of this splendid on-the-cheap production, not the suggested donation (a sliding scale that starts at movie rates but “no one turned away”). It has the feel, the real value of a rich, glitz-free show. “As a director of mostly experimental and community based theater, I wanted to see what would happen if I took a big musical and did it without even the pretense of production values,” writes Ten Red Hen’s Maya Gurantz in the program notes, “to do the Broadway musical without the Broadway.” To make it doubly problematic, Gurantz and her able cohorts have taken what’s “essentially, a splashy rockin’ musical about sexual exploitation during the Vietnam War,” and turned it into a running series of pointed, if unvoiced, questions about the spectacle of it all, without losing a penny of entertainment value. It’s great, heady fun, a showcase of talent and exuberance.
The dozen-member cast troops through the sometimes cynical, sometimes maudlin Madame Butterfly story, which “veers from white male colonialist fantasy to fairly accurate social critiques and back again.” Some double as musicians in the on-the-floor “pit.” M usical Director and pianist Dave Malloy plays Chris, the male lead (a Marine from the American Embassy, who finds love—where else?—in a brothel), at one point playing the keyboard with one hand while pantomiming a phonecall to his buddy John (George Michael, an excellent vocalist.) He confesses to being bit by the lovebug, only to be told to hustle back to the Embassy as the capital falls to the North Viets.
Brittany Bexton, a recent Pacific Conservatory graduate, ups the ante as a triple threat: a fine-singing Ellen (Chris’s stateside wife, clueless at first about Chris’s ‘Dalliance En Nam’), a clarinetist and a tap-dancing cheerleader during a fantasy song by The Engineer, a pimp played with gusto by Mark Romyn: “I’m too good for small-time hustles/Wha t’s that smell in the air?/The American Dream!” A brassy blonde, Fred Astaire and The Statue of Liberty on roller skates fill out this chorus extolling what The States holds in trust for the wretched of the earth.
In the midst of a plethora of 99-cent ef fects, the lid of Malloy’s upright piano plays multiple roles. It serves as an elevated playing area, and then is slammed down for the sound of gunshots: the first when the heroine shoots, with pointed finger, her menacing cousin Thuy, played by Erick Ca sanova, who both sings and moves well as this pathetic villain who comes back to haunt in dreams. Finally, it’s the top to a cradle for the balloon-headed bundle that somehow perfectly signifies the love-child of Marine and bargirl. Later, there’s a rus h of balloons for all the children dashing hopefully to safety as the—yes—toy helicopter takes off with the Embassy’s charges.
The biggest ovation by rights goes to lead Jane Chen, as Kim, the young woman fleeing her devastated village, lost in the ste ws of the big city, later transformed into a courtesan with an almost hieroglyphic leer, as she waits for word of Chris in Bangkok, caring for their son. A very talented comedienne, trained in physical theater, Chen toured the country with her brilliant o ne-woman show, The Chinese Clown Cabaret, also directed by Gurantz, her friend from Yale. In The 99-Cent Miss Saigon, she extends the deft touch she showed in comic vaudeville to an exceptional dramatic portrayal, singing and acting out a role that’s obse ssed her since seventh grade.
“Jane found there was a difference between singing Kim’s songs, and having to play Kim, who is written so often as a stereotype,” comments Gurantz. “And yet...the possibilities of magic contained in the show kept me enthralled—I didn’t want to make it a satire. That would be too easy.” Chen ends the notes with, “What you see tonight is a combination of what we have found in the musical, and what we decided to make our own.”
All this is staged with brio—very much their own—in the industrial multi-purpose room that was once Willard School’s Metalshop, which Ten Red Hen is helping to convert into a black box theater for school and community use: the Metalshop Theater Project (for info, contact drama teacher George_Rose@berkel ey.k12.ca.us). The program itself is worth at least 99 cents; the plot is clearly and helpfully laid out, followed by a cost breakdown: “How Much Does A 99-Cent Show Cost, Anyway?”
“A lot, surprisingly,” is the answer (though special effects, “including, variously, beet juice and balloons,” came in at $100.) The conclusion: “it is more expensive to make a show ‘look’ cheap ... than to just have a mish-mash of some nice and some poor things ... brought in from cast and crew closets ...” As at least one R ed Hen from the fairy tale could tell you, sometimes the nicest gifts come in the plainest packages.