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History doesn't overrun humanity in 'Saigon'

WORCESTER -- Who would have thought a musical acclaimed for spectacular stagecraft (a full-size helicopter replica) could translate to the intimate below-stairs audit-orium of Worcester's Foothills Theatre Company? Happily, the human dimension prevails in an enjoyable if occasionally overwrought production of ''Miss Saigon."

Set in Vietnam during the final, desperate days of US-occupied Saigon, the story centers on unlikely lovers Kim, a bar girl, and Chris, a Marine. Their tragic fate, which recalls the story of ''Madama Butterfly," spans two continents, the transformation of freewheeling Saigon into repressive Ho Chi Minh City, and much agonized and melodic soul-searching.

''Miss Saigon" came to Broadway in 1991 accompanied by massive controversy: Producer Cameron Mackintosh charged a then-record-breaking $100 a ticket and also decided to cast non-Asians (notably Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer). But audiences embraced this magnificent weeper, and it's seldom out of production somewhere in the world.

Now, 14 years on, one can see what critic Robert Brustein meant when he called it a ''schlepic." Act One rambles, but the romantic mood is sustained, and the characters are winning. Act Two is heavier on polemic than plot, with slide shows of abandoned Amerasian children and, more glaring, Chris's underexplored case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

At Worcester, the ''epic" proportions of this piece are modest, partly due to the tatty set pieces that all-too-visible stagehands slide on and off (this is a musical with plenty of bedrooms, yet most of the sex takes place in barrooms). And a dim lighting scheme plays up the twilight feel.

Fortunately, Foothills hasn't skimped on the talent. Leads Audri T. Dalio and Christopher Kale Jones offer touching, nuanced performances. We meet Kim when she's fresh from the country, ''sort of a virgin, more or less." As history unfolds around her, Dalio's Kim never loses her humanity or her sweetness, even when committing a serious crime. Dalio's voice has purity, whether she's harmonizing with Chris (''Sun and Moon") or agonizing over imminent tragedy.

Jones's Chris is an impassioned stand-up guy, though his vibrato occasionally overwhelms the sonorousness of his tone. Herman Sebek's Engineer, the pimp who brings these two together, is just terrific. This character's exploitative instincts make the MC of ''Cabaret" seem austere, yet Sebek's bonhomie and intelligence make the Engineer more likable as the musical rolls along.

The five-piece orchestra, led by Robert Rucinski, is taut and despite a few small mixing issues early on, sound and singers are well-integrated. Director Paul Dobie (an original cast member in the Broadway ''Miss Saigon") presides over a show that underlines the fact that nothing is fair in love or war.

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