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Musical theatre companies in Southern California maintain generally high standards, and it's cause for exhilaration when a production comes along that kicks the bar up several notches. Fullerton Civic Light Opera's valiant decision to tackle the first locally produced mounting of this daunting international mega-hit proves to be a fortuitous move. It's not just a matter of technical precision, though this production scores marvelously on that count. What makes this such a special experience is the exceptionally talented actors whom director Jan Duncan has assembled—and the masterful way she makes this familiar property seem fresh, vibrant, and deeply moving.

This European-bred pop opera, with its Vietnam War background, feels more resonant today than it did when it premiered in 1991. The musical's themes of the devastation of war and the resulting human toll and corruption of values ring resoundingly true. Inspired by Puccini's Madame Butterfly, this is one of the few contemporary musicals to capture the power and sweep of grand opera. Thanks to Dustin J. Cardwell's atmospheric and majestic sets, Donna Ruzika's picturesque lighting effects, and Mela Hoyt-Heydon's superb costumes, the production is visually sublime in ways that feel supportive of the material, never excessive. Music director/conductor Todd Helm complements the visual splendors with an exemplary treatment of the exciting Claude-Michel Schonberg/Richard Maltby Jr./Alain Boublil score.

As the doomed heroine Kim, Kristine Remigio combines exceptional vocal talent and great sensitivity to convey the courage and dignity of her character. Her portrayal is at once heartbreaking and inspirational. As Chris, the GI with whom she shares a spontaneous tryst and a fateful link, Blake Pullen likewise sings magnificently and eloquently depicts the character's torturous moral dilemmas. In the dynamic role of the Engineer—a mix of the ominously sleazy and the irresistibly charismatic—Franc Anton Harwart mesmerizes. Nods are also due the excellent support of Bonifacio Deoso Jr., Kelly Lamont, Maceo Oliver, and the ensemble. Pulling no punches to sanitize the frank sexual implications in this piece, director Jan Duncan and producer Griff Duncan courageously defy their conservative audience base to embrace forward-thinking trends in musical theatre. We hope other local CLOs follow this example.

"Miss Saigon," presented by Fullerton Civic Light Opera at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Also Sun. 7 p.m., Feb. 27 and Sat. 2 p.m., Mar. 5.) $22-45. Feb. 18-Mar. 6. (714) 879-1732.

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