For the cast and crew of the Manatee Players, it must feel a bit like they’ve died and gone to heaven, to open a show—especially one like Miss Saigon—in their brand-new Manatee Performing Arts Center. Seven years or so in the making, the building’s interior boasts so much more space and better equipment and access for those working onstage and behind the scenes, and of course the opening translates into a better experience for the audience members, too—more comfortable seats, better sight lines, etc.

But all that wouldn’t mean so much if artistic director Rick Kerby and his legion of workers—both volunteer and paid—weren’t able to deliver the goods across the footlights. Fortunately, with Miss Saigon, he’s able to meet—and surpass—expectations.

It’s a complicated piece of stage work, even without mentioning that helicopter bit in Act II that people always remember. (For the record, that scene, of the fall of Saigon in 1975, is convincingly and movingly handled.) Not only is there a big ensemble cast to move effectively about that new, larger stage, there’s a sung-through musical score (by Claude-Michel Schonberg, with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil) that can be as demanding as that in the Madama Butterfly opera that inspired this tale.

Of course, in this version, Kim (Holly Rizzo) is Vietnamese, an orphaned girl who turns up in a Saigon bar run by the Eurasian Engineer (Omar Montes) and falls quickly in love with GI Chris (William E. Masuck). We know their relationship is doomed from the outset, and yet it’s easy to get caught up in their romance as they meet, sing (Sun and Moon) and make plans for a future that can never be. When they’re separated by the chaos of the American withdrawal from the country, Chris returns home to a different life and, eventually, a new wife (Channing Weir), while Kim remains behind, like Butterfly, loving and protecting a son his father doesn’t know about and steadfast in her belief that Chris will return for them both.

Kerby, his cast, musical director Aaron Cassette, scenery and projection designer Marc Lalosh and costume designers David Walker and Georgina Wilmott have pulled out all the stops to make this tragic story come to life. What must have been weeks of very hard work has paid off with a production that emphasizes what a lot of talent there is in the community. To single out a few moments and performers is not to slight others, but I was particularly impressed by The Morning of the Dragon number, with the menace of the dance and its red imagery as the Communists take over rule; with Montes as the always scheming, often sardonic Engineer (especially on If You Want to Die in Bed and the flashy, cynical The American Dream numbers); and with Rizzo and Weir, both of whom are young but perform with poise and soaring vocalizations. Rizzo handles the complicated canvas of emotions Kim must go through like an actress with much more maturity and experience. And she has good chemistry with Masuck, who occasionally sounded a bit hoarse but was able to make Chris sympathetic in his impossible situation.

There were some minor sound issues the night I attended Miss Saigon, but as everyone involved in the Manatee Players’ new adventure continues to familiarize themselves with their brand-new home and its technology, that should be smoothed out. In the meantime, congratulations are due.

Miss Saigon continues through April 14 at the new theater, at 502 Third Ave. W. For tickets, call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.

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