With the opening of its new $15 million Manatee Performing Arts Complex, the Manatee Players now has a theater worthy of the smart and elaborate productions it so frequently presents.
Thursday’s debut of the new center and the musical “Miss Saigon” was officially described as a soft opening, but there was nothing low-key about the mainstage theater, known as Stone Hall, or Rick Kerby’s moving production of this lavish musical. (The official grand opening is planned for August.)
Just hours after construction crews finished clearing out, a black-tie crowd of public officials, board members and major donors filled the theater, the result of a seven-year construction project. Though its 380-seats are about 150 more than in the old Riverfront Theatre, Stone Hall feels intimate, even from the back rows.
The warm colors are inviting and the seats are comfortable, with enough room for most people to cross their legs.
It’s a welcoming space that will likely get well-sampled during the three-week run of the impressive production of “Miss Saigon.”
Aside from a few technical snafus, you wouldn’t know that Kerby, the theater’s producing artistic director, his designers and cast only had a week to set up and try out the new space. It will take a while to work out sound issues — some microphones are too loud or tinny — but this doesn’t look like a rush job.
“Miss Saigon,” by the creators of “Les Misérables,” is a twist on Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly.” It’s about the whirlwind romance between a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier during the final days of U.S. involvement in the war. His plan to bring her home is thwarted in the chaos of the evacuation of Saigon. Chris moves on over the years, but Kim fights to survive until she can reunite with Chris and the son he doesn’t know about.
It’s an intimately tragic love story told with broad strokes and a score that includes crushing ballads and occasionally syrupy lyrics, beautifully played by an orchestra led by musical director Aaron Cassette.
You feel all of Kim’s passion, strength, pain and hope in the star-making performance of Holly Rizzo, who may be a high school student, but acts and sings with sensitivity and maturity. She draws you into Kim’s plight with every moving note.
She also has a wonderful foil in the Engineer, an entrepreneur looking for any way he can to get to America. Omar Montes plays the role with a sinewy style, mixed with a touch of sleaze and manipulation. He’s always got an angle, and he almost makes you believe his P.T. Barnum-style hokum.
Montes sings with energy, ferocity (when needed) and a hint of euphoria in his demented view of “The American Dream,” which Kerby stages with appropriately bizarre images and over-the-top taste.
Rizzo is romantically paired with William E. Masuck as Chris, who is at his best in the character’s softer moments. His voice strains when he’s blasting notes in “Why God Why” or the impressively staged fall of Saigon, with the image of an arriving helicopter that fills the theater with flashing lights and vibrating sounds.
As Chris’ wife, Ellen, Channing Weir brings a strong voice and sweetness to a woman often seems harsh because of how she is torn by mixed feelings. Weir makes her real.
That’s also true of Brian Chunn as Chris’ friend, John, who sings with compassion about the mixed-race babies that weren’t wanted by the North Vietnamese and makes you ready to join a cause.
Scenic designer Marc Lalosh, working on a stage at least twice as large as the Riverfront, creates a lavish look with slatted bamboo curtains that rise or fall to create different locations, and make room for giant wood towers and a golden statue of Ho Chi Minh.
The costumes by David Walker and Georgina Willmott run from military drab to dive-bar trash with relative ease.
It’s all lit with a sleek, moody glow by Joseph P. Oshry, who alternates dark, brooding emotions with a lightness for the love scenes, before sending three desperate characters walking in silhouette into the sunset.
But for the theater, it’s a time of sunrise on a new home with a lot of promise for the future.
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil. Directed and choreographed by Rick Kerby. Reviewed March 28 in Stone Hall, Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 3rd Ave. West, Bradenton. Through April 14. Tickets are $26-$36; $15 for teachers, $13 for students. 748-5875; manateeplayers.com