THE heat is on at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, where the national tour of “Miss Saigon” has mounted for the next four weeks.
Opening night was held on Thursday, July 18, which was attended by several Filipino American talent, such as Jennifer Paz (“Steven Universe” and first national tour of “Miss Saigon”), Jon Jon Briones (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” and original “Miss Saigon” production and its 2014 West End and subsequent Broadway Revival), Vincent Rodriguez III (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) and Dante Basco (“Hook” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender).
The legendary musical, which was revived and reimagined under the direction of Laurence Connor in 2014, transports the audience to Saigon during the dwindling days of the Vietnam War. After witnessing her family perish as a result of the war, 17-year-old Kim (Emily Bautista) is forced into prostitution by the Engineer (Red Concepción), an opportunistic bar owner with dreams to make it to America.
Kim meets and falls in love with American G.I. Chris (Anthony Festa), who soon returns to the United States without her and unknowingly fathers a son named Tam with her.
Three years later, Kim, who is still clinging onto this idea of love and that Chris will come back to find her, makes her way to Bangkok with the Engineer, who once again enters the sleazy nightclub business. The second act culminates in Kim, whose past is weighing on her, heartbreakingly deciding her son’s future and a fateful reunion with Chris, who has PTSD from the war and is now married to Ellen (Stacie Bono).
Through the tragic storyline, there’s no shortage of risqué moves, the grittiness of the era and circumstances, and political themes on immigration, family separation and what the American dream means — which are ever-present and relevant today.
The story and controversies around the production aside, the heart-wrenching music — by Claude-Michel Schönberg with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil — reminds the audience of why this musical has stuck around since it opened in 1989, from the yearning of “The Movie in My Mind” to Kim and Chris’ fleeting moment of intimacy during the classic “Sun and Moon” number to the Engineer’s grandiose vision during “American Dream,” which is replete with fur coats, showgirls in flashy costumes, a large convertible and a gold Statue of Liberty.
“I don’t think they write music for musicals like this anymore. It’s hectic, yet has a lot of heart. We’re honored and excited to do it here in Los Angeles, especially with a predominantly Asian cast. It’s an important moment for representation,” Concepción told the Asian Journal ahead of the performance.
Filipino Americans actors fill the cast, with leads Bautista (who was the understudy for Eva Noblezada in the Broadway production and Éponine in the national tour of “Les Misérables”) as Kim, Concepción (who has many theatre credits back in the Philippines) as the Engineer and Christine Bunuan as ‘Gigi,’ and several in the ensemble.
“This is a story I grew up with all my life and I’ve always wanted to be in it. I went in with an open heart, trying to tell Gigi’s story, who we don’t know much about. There are so many women in this situation, such as those in a war-torn country, and have no way to survive or to support themselves…When watching Kim and her fight to survive, I hope anyone who is a mother or anyone who has a relationship with children will empathize with this,” Bunuan said.
The cast also includes Anthony Festa as ‘Chris,’ Stacie Bono as ‘Ellen,’ J. Daughtry as ‘John,’ Jinwoo Jung as ‘Thuy.” They are joined by Devin Archer, Alexander Aguilar, Eric Badiqué, Brandon Block, Eymard Cabling, Joven Calloway, Rae Leigh Case, Kai An Chee, Julie Eicher, Matthew Dailey, Tyler Dunn, Noah Gouldsmith, Haven Je, Adam Kaokept, David Kaverman, McKinley Knuckle, Madoka Koguchi, Nancy Lam, Brian Shimasaki Liebson, Garrick Macatangay, Jonelle Margallo, Fin Moulding, Kevin Murakami, Adalynn Ng, Jackie Nguyen, Matthew Overberg, Emilio Ramos, Adam Roberts, Michael Russell, Julius Sermonia, Emily Stillings, Tiffany Toh, Nicholas Walters, and Anna-Lee Wright. The role of Tam is played by Tyler Dunn, Haven Je, Fin Moulding and Adalynn Ng.
For the Filipino American community, the musical has undeniably been a favorite for several reasons, including the role of Kim being originated by Lea Salonga, for which she won a Tony Award, and has since been a career highlight for many Filipina American actresses such as Paz, Joan Almedilla and most recently, Noblezada, who was nominated for a Tony Award.
“It’s really exciting to see a new generation be exposed to this story, especially now too with everything that is going on with the discourse in our country. It’s important to just look at the victims of conflict and see that this is a human story. The show is constantly evolving and there’s even a new song,” Paz told the Asian Journal during opening night.
Briones, who was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical for playing the Engineer in the 2014 West End revival, added that the musical has launched a lot of performers’ careers.
“This is so dear to us because it’s a beautiful story with beautiful music. Everyone can relate to it,” Briones said. “Actually, Filipinos think we own this show because we can see a Filipino story too. So many Filipino talents have done this and have gone through great success in their careers afterward.”
The performance schedule for “Miss Saigon” at the Pantages is Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m.