Girls Gone Wild 

Diablo Light Opera's Miss Saigon and Impact's Nicky Goes Goth are two mixed bags.

Accompanied by a cloud of glitter and a bevy of tiny tops, East Bay theater gets raunchy this month as wasted socialites and bargirls run amok in Berkeley and Walnut Creek. At Impact Theatre, Paris and Nicky Hilton battle existential angst and brain chemistry in Elizabeth Meriwether's raucous Nicky Goes Goth, while at the Dean Lesher Center the Diablo Light Opera Company knocks out a take-no-prisoners Miss Saigon.

The infamously tech-heavy musical Miss Saigon (and yes, there is a helicopter in the DLOC show), is an update of Puccini's Madame Butterfly, set in a South Vietnamese bar and brothel circa 1975. Butterfly is of course the incredibly sad opera of a Japanese woman who falls in love with and marries an American soldier, who then rewards his bride by going home and marrying someone else. Based on a play by American playwright David Belasco, which is itself based on a British short story, and so on down to the French Madame Chrysanthème, this tale of a heroine who sacrifices herself to save her child resonates with writers looking for a tear-jerker.

It also looked, to Frenchmen Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (the team that brought us Les Misérables), like a chance to slam the United States for the war in Vietnam. That's ironic, considering that France was part of Vietnam's problem to begin with. As much as it is the story of a doomed love between the orphaned Kim and her GI Chris, Miss Saigon also is a scathing indictment of the war and one of its unexpected side effects. Nephi Speer, as John, Chris' commanding officer, sings like a preacher in "Bui-Doi" that the children American soldiers begot on Vietnamese women are "the living reminders of all the good we failed to do."

Bumping the story up to the period directly after the Vietnam War makes it hold together better, and modern audiences will appreciate that Kim, the abandoned woman, is a lot stronger than Butterfly -- who just waits, warbles, and then kills herself. The scene where Kim defends her son against the power-mad Thuy is as far from Puccini as it gets. The tricky thing is that Thuy is actually the man Kim was promised to at thirteen, a reptilian panderer is using Kim to get out of Vietnam, and the GI's new stateside wife is a deucedly sympathetic character.

The DLOC production is a mixed bag. The orchestra plays the haunting score beautifully under the direction of Cheryl Yee Glass, but that same score often drowns out the singing, especially in the ensemble numbers, making it very difficult to understand what's going on. This is a recurring problem at the Lesher -- it is virtually impossible to hear the lyrics over the orchestra, especially on anything with more than two voices. It's an embarrassment to stage a big tech-heavy extravaganza yet squander the impact because the audience has to rely on the actors' facial expressions to get the gist.

The singing that is audible is often lovely, especially Lorraine De Arco as Gigi in "The Movie in My Mind" in the first act. De Arco's dancing speaks of bellydance or hula training, but she also has a warmly husky voice that makes a bargirl dreaming about the good life a sad and smoky affair. Then Catherine Gloria comes in as Kim (a role she alternates with Nina Gosiengfiao), pure and clean on songs like "Sun and Moon" and "I Still Believe." Dane Stokinger's high tenor as Chris wraps around "The Confrontation" like the wrath of God. The big numbers are a loss under the booming music, but at least there's some interesting, spooky choregraphy (cadres dancing with their Simonov rifles under the benevolent gaze of a giant gold Ho Chi Minh).

The original London production of Miss Saigon ran for ten years, beginning in 1989. It's worth speculating on what story we'll tell ourselves ten years from now. Will there be an Iraqi equivalent of the bui-doi, French composers blasting our behavior, auditoria full of veterans straining to hear the lyrics over the hip-hop and heavy metal score of Miss Baghdad? Under the American-flag bikinis and heavy artillery, Butterfly's story is one that people love to tell, and the quieter moments of the DLOC production tell us why.

There's almost nothing quiet about Nicky Goes Goth, Impact's crisp premiere of Elizabeth Meriwether's skewering of celebrity culture. For anyone who gloated when real-life hackers broke into Paris Hilton's personal organizer and obtained the phone numbers of friends such as the actor Vin Diesel, the story of younger Hilton heiress Nicky getting all existential is a riot. For anyone else, it's a strange love between a moody socialite, a suburban punk, and their assorted dendrites. Or the strange love between a bitchy princess and her gay makeup designer. Although the real love story turns out to be elsewhere, in a cute twist.

Meriwether's script is brilliant in places, overlong in others. And it's a shame it's so very topical, because it's funny and acid-etched, yet in a few years nobody will know who the sisters Hilton are. Perhaps by then, when they're on their third facelifts, Meriwether can cannibalize this script and use the pieces in something else.

Because it's full of good moments. The punk's mother complaining when he comments on her white neck: "Always with the blood and the sucking, Steven. You're like a mosquito." Laura Jane Bailey is a trip as Mom, waiting for Steven to bring her Sprite; she's even better as part of his brain as he careens into the city. Patrick Alparone smolders as Steven, who calls himself Shithead and dreams of the dark goddess Panzoor. He has the Goth hand moves down, and his litany of hated things ("Smoothies. Dave Matthews.") intersects nicely with Nicky's description of a disappointing post-coital moment.

Megan Biolchini is simply marvelous as Paris; long, skinny, a face that is somehow all elegant planes, a voice piercing and ingratiating by turns. She eclipses the real Paris and makes her seem pale and wanting. Torturing the anorexic Nicky (a wild-eyed Erin Carter) by force-feeding her Doritos, she is the vicious sun goddess the other characters believe her to be, including the fey Aaron.

There are missteps. A gratutitous scene between the swinish Christian and two other women slows down the momentum of the end. Meriwether has the characters play parts of their own brains for a fight scene, calling out what they're doing ("Punch! Bite!"), and it isn't as interesting as the earlier brain scenes. Some of Aaron's monologue feels as if Meriwether couldn't bear to cut the fat, and Joshua Huston can't twinkle his way out.

Nicky is not for the faint-hearted. Although there's no nudity, there's everything else -- a goddess of shit, gleefully bad language, and even cheery "Happy Birthday" cocktail napkins. It's raunchy and in bad taste and sometimes quite moving, such as when Nicky says, "Maybe I'm crazy, but I want love to eat me whole," and the stage goes silent. This one is deeper than it first looks.

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