The North Carolina Theatre’s big-budget presentation of the Vietnam War musical Miss Saigon is a magnificent home-grown production — perhaps, the best in the Raleigh-based regional theater’s distinguished history — complete with the blockbuster show’s trademark helicopter hovering over the crowded rooftop of the U.S. Embassy during the famous evacuation scene. NCT’s vibrant version of the 1989 London and 1991 New York hit by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyricists by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr., and librettists Boublil and Schönberg not only compares favorably with the national tours of Miss Saigon that have previously graced Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage, but probably has a stronger overall cast than any of those touring productions.

Jennifer Paz and Eric Kunze play the star-crossed lovers — the Vietnamese bargirl Kim and her devoted American Marine boyfriend Chris — roles that they performed in the first national tour of Miss Saigon; and Kevin Gray likewise reprises his impish impersonation of the Engineer, a part he played in the Toronto and Los Angeles productions of Miss Saigon.

Paz gives a luminous performance as Kim, a 17-year-old virgin from the war-ravaged countryside whom the Engineer cynically recruits to work in his bar and brothel, where her innocence can be sold to the highest bidder. Eric Kunze’s soulful portrayal of Chris, whom he also played on Broadway, is another warm and winning performance; but Kevin Gray’s wonderfully wicked portrayal of the Engineer is a true show-stopper. Gray makes the loathsome bar owner and pimp an oily character who would steal the coins off a dead man’s eyes, yet somehow the audience still roots for that rascal to obtain a hard-to-get visa to the United States that will allow him to fleece a whole new flock of sheep stateside.

Kevin Gray sings the Engineer’s songs of lust and greed with brio, and Jennifer Paz and Eric Kunze also make beautiful music together. Jennifer Shrader, who plays Chris’ wife Ellen, is a superlative singer, too; and Marc delaCruz portrays Kim’s former fiancé Thuy, a member of the Viet Cong and a future Commissar in the forcibly reunited Vietnam, with a palpable menace.

Josh Tower is terrific as Chris’ Marine buddy John, Olivia Oguma adds a memorable cameo as Kim’s fellow bargirl Gigi, and Timothy Gunawan and Malachi Son take turns playing Kim and Chris’ three-year-old son Tam.

Director Richard Stafford, who smartly staged the North Carolina Theatre’s delightful February 2008 rendition of Annie Get your Gun, adds another laurel to his directorial crown with this electrifying version of Miss Saigon. Choreographer Marc Oka’s high-octane production numbers — especially the bar and American Dream scenes — add fuel to the fire that Stafford has lit, and on opening night last Saturday musical director Edward G. Robinson and the NCT orchestra made every note in the superlative score by the Les Misérables team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil resonate with a highly appreciative audience.

The splendid sets, originally designed for the Fullerton Civic Light Opera Company by scenic designer Dustin J. Cardwell, and the Vietnam War era American military and civilian and Thai and Vietnamese fashions from Costume World, Inc., costume designer Mela Hoyt-Heydon, and NCT costumer Ann M. Bruskiewitz — particularly Kim’s beautiful costumes and the Engineer’s garish outfits — make the North Carolina Theatre presentation of Miss Saigon look fabulous, absolutely fabulous. The contributions of technical director Bill Yates, Jr., lighting designer John Bartenstein, properties mistress Laurie Johnson, and sound designer Nathaniel Hare also help this explosive version of Miss Saigon capture the audience’s imagination — not to mention unleash torrents of tears during the final heartbreaking final scenes.

With stellar performances of Jennifer Paz, Eric Kunze, and Kevin Gray and its outstanding supporting cast, the North Carolina Theatre’s gala presentation of Miss Saigon proves once again that the Raleigh-based regional theater can create must-see musicals that rival the best of the bus-and-truck series. Don’t miss it.

Content Advisory: Please note that some subject matter may not be suitable for some audiences. Parental discretion is advised.

This production continues through March 29. For details, click here.