Director David C. Johnston quotes something Richard Maltby Jr., an American co-lyricist of "Miss Saigon," said in the 1990s: "We should have looked at ourselves this way. This is a show we (America) should have written."
The musical, with a backdrop of America's Vietnam chapter, was written by two Frenchmen. Choreographer Andre Morissette, a French-Canadian, added his thoughts: "I think not reaching that goal (in Vietnam) touched America's soul."
Morissette cites the character of John, played by Neil Clevenger, as a key component in the tale. Act two opens in Atlanta, where John now works for an aid society whose mission is to connect bui-doi (Vietnamese war orphans) with their American fathers.
Sharon Zalsos as Kim in “Miss Saigon.”
Jack Grace photo
Ricky Jones plays Chris, and Sharon Zalsos plays Kim in “Miss Saigon,” opening Aug. 15 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater.
Jack Grace photo
"John is affected by this, and as his character says, 'all the good that we failed to do,' " Morissette said.
Johnston continued the observation, quoting a line from Chris, the male lead of "Miss Saigon," played by Ricky Jones: "Chris represents the American struggle. Vietnam doesn't sit well with him - he's ready to go home when the play begins, and in the second act, years later, it still haunts him. He says, 'Christ, I'm an American. How could I have failed to do good?' "
That internal struggle is just one of many sobering components that intertwine in "Miss Saigon," opening Aug. 15 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater.
MAPA Live! presents "Miss Saigon." Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 15 to 24 in Castle Theater at the MACC. Tickets range from $15 to $65 (plus applicable fees); student discount available with valid identification. "Miss Saigon" contains mature themes and language. To purchase tickets for any MACC event, visit the box office, call 242-7469 or order online at www.mauiarts.org.
In one sense, it's just a modern version of "Madame Butterfly," but it's also a "love will conquer all" tale, and of course, there is the menacing helicopter.
"We looked at every show, it seemed," said Johnston on why Maui Academy of Performing Arts chose "Miss Saigon."
"One part of me didn't want to do a show where everyone would ask, 'What are you going to do about the helicopter?"
He jokingly shared another Maltby observation: "Maltby is a director, and when he got to the part in the script with the helicopter, he panicked, 'How can we do this?' Alain Boublil (co-lyricist) calmed him down by saying, 'That's not your job, you're just the writer, let the director solve that problem.' "
I asked if they had solved it. "I think we have," Johnston laughed. Morissette jokingly added, "It works really well on paper."
Still one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, "Miss Saigon" is a stunning theatrical spectacle. Claude-Michel Schonberg and Boublil, who also created "Les Miserables," were initially inspired by a famous photo of a young child caught between cultures during the Vietnam War.
The Maui production stars Jones, Clevenger, Sharon Zalsos as Kim, Kepa Cabanilla-Aricayos as the Engineer, Leighanna Locke as Ellen, Barry Kawakami as Thuy and Hoku Pavao as Gigi, and also features a live 21-piece orchestra. Gary Shin-Leavitt provides musical direction.
"The success of our production of 'Les Miserables' showed us that Maui audiences are hungry for high-quality, Broadway-caliber productions featuring local talent," said Johnston. "When choosing a show at the MACC, you want an epic show. What can we do there that we couldn't do anywhere else? How can you use the facility to its full potential?"
When the show first debuted, its producers faced some criticism in casting non-Asian actors. Johnston addressed the matter as it relates to Maui, saying, "If you can't cast it here, you can't cast it anywhere. It did scare me - would the actors show up? We had a good turnout and decided we'll figure out the helicopter somehow."
Two of those actors that showed up were Zalsos and Cabanilla-Aricayos.
"What Sharon brings is an ethereal, otherworldly quality. I didn't identify what I wanted Kim to be until we saw Sharon," said Johnston.
Of Kepa, Morissette offered, "He brings a lot to the process. There's an exchange between actor and director. It's a pleasant way to work, and he's just a joy to work with."
"He brings an enormous amount of talent to this production," added Johnston. The 45-member cast of "Miss Saigon" is volunteering its talents to the production. "Kepa shared with us that he's been 'paid already.' Playing this role has allowed him to sit down and talk with his father about his experiences in Vietnam for the first time."
The musical opens just before the Fall of Saigon at Dreamland, a sordid Saigon club owned and operated by the Engineer, a French-Vietnamese man. It's the first day for hostess and bargirl Kim, a 17-year-old orphan. The U.S. Marines, who will be abandoning Saigon very soon, party with the Vietnamese girls at the club ("The Heat is on in Saigon"). Chris, a disenchanted sergeant, is encouraged by John to visit with a girl. The girls are competing for the title of Miss Saigon, and the winner will be raffled off to a Marine. Kim's innocence strikes Chris immediately. Later he prays why they met just as he was about to leave Vietnam ("Why, God, Why?"). By curfew, the two have pledged their love for each other ("Sun and Moon").
"It's a rich love story," said Johnston, "set amidst a societal context - it's world at war, east versus west, and there is constant opposition bumping up against their ability to be together."
We spoke about the sexual nature of "Miss Saigon," Johnston saying: "Sexuality is a component - this show is not appropriate for an 8 year old, but compared to what is on TV, it's relatively mild. Our American perspective will say, 'These women were whores,' but in reality it was companionship. The girls would see the same soldiers, and the soldiers would wait to see that girl. A GI was looking for a moment of emotional reprieve - it has more to do with social therapy as opposed to a sexual industry."
Despite their pledge, Kim is swallowed up by the mob at the Embassy gates ("The Fall of Saigon") and cannot enter. Chris, while attempting to go back into the crowd to find her, is purposely knocked out by John as they escape on the last helicopter. Kim, now pregnant, can only watch, still pledging her eternal love to him.
Years later, John, Chris and Chris' wife, Ellen, venture to Bangkok. Kim, heartbroken, pleads for Ellen to take her child, Tam, back with them to America. Ellen forces Chris to choose, either Kim and Tam, or her. Chris chooses Ellen, leaving Tam and Kim in Bangkok but offering financial support. Faced with no other choice, Kim tells Tam ("This is the Hour") to be happy that he can now be with his father, and although she cannot go with them, she will be watching over Tam.
"You can't just walk away from the children. The bui-doi were our children. Kim ensures this for her child," said Johnston. He shared a favorite lyric and moment between Kim and Tam, "I tasted love beyond all fear, and know its love that brought you here."
ALSO THIS WEEK
The 37th annual "Shower of Stars," Hawaii's oldest ongoing talent show, returns to the Historic Iao Theater. Eleven contestants will compete for cash prizes and awards in this traditional talent competition. Performance at 6:00 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $10 at the door.
ONO! returns with "Dog Sees God" by Bert V. Royal, an unauthorized parody of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang (contains mature themes and language). Performance is at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Historic Iao Theater. The free ONO! performances are every second Monday of the month.
The Maui Fringe Theater Festival 2015 is now accepting submissions. Fringe productions should be simplistic short plays with minimal set and technical needs. If accepted, the entry fee for three performances is $500, with kamaaina discounts available for Hawaii residents. The fifth annual Maui Fringe Theater Festival will take place from Jan. 23 to 25 at the Historic Iao Theater. To be considered, email your 60-minutes-or-less, original one-act play to firstname.lastname@example.org. For complete rules, additional guidelines and an application, visit www.mauionstage.com