As a child who loved musical theater, visually and realistically, I understood there were few shows that I could ever hope to be part of. I call it the trinity — The King and I, Flower Drum Song, and Miss Saigon opened in the West End when I was 4 years old. I joined a kids theatrical group in Southern California when I was 6 so Miss Saigon was added to that roster. The first thing Filipinos will tell you when you mention this show is, “Did you know that Lea Salonga was in this show?” and/or “Is Lea Salonga still in this show?” Yes and no are the answers. But the important take away from that statement is that Filipino people know this show and Filipino people will go see this show.
That said, I saw a lot of Filipino people at the first showing of Miss Saigon’s tour here in Los Angeles. A lot. More than I had ever seen for any other show I’d been to with almost all Asian casts. I’m usually the only one! I tend to notice these things.
The last time I had seem Miss Saigon was several years ago when it played at the La Mirada Theatre just down the road from us in La Mirada, California. All I could remember was loving that production, but not really remembering much of the intricate details of the plot. That’s why I was thrilled to see it come to Los Angeles after its turn on Broadway.
If you haven’t seen it, the plot is as follows. Kim works at a bar/brothel and on her first day meets Chris, an American soldier. It’s almost the end of the Vietnam War in the 70s. Chris and Kim fall in love. Circumstances tear them apart. Kim has his baby. Chris returns to America and marries. Chris finds out about the baby. Drama ensues. If you haven’t seen it and you’re in the Los Angeles area, you want to see this production and let me tell you why.
This is a phenomenal show due in large part to the incredible performers we have the opportunity to see on this tour. Emily Bautista as Kim is absolutely astonishing. She managed to make me love her in the first few minutes she steps on stage, offering first her vulnerability and sweetness and later in the show giving the audience her depth and emotion as a mother who’s trying to do everything she can to protect her child. A performer has to be able to take you from those initial few minutes and carry you throughout a story to the very, very end and she does it flawlessly. The same could be said about her on stage partner, Anthony Festa as Chris. He is absolutely riveting in the role and had me from start to finish. Rather, he absolutely destroyed me in the finish. I was a wreck. You could see the inner turmoil written all over his face from the first decision he makes to be with Kim to the last decision he makes in Vietnam. And I haven’t even talked about their voices. I’m a fan of these kind of big musicals and I think they need big, large voices to carry a show well. Anthony’s “Why, God, Why” and Emily’s “I’d Give My Life For You” were absolute showstoppers. You know that emoji where the emoji’s mouth is open in surprise? That’s me. I’m the emoji with my mouth dropped open, not in surprise, but completely blown away by the force of power in their voices. “Sun and Moon” is one of my favorite songs, not just in a musical theater catalog, but one of my favorite songs ever and I was swept away and weeping when it was finished. Their sheer dynamics alone as a pair is enough to blow the roof off the theater.
Red Concepción’s take on The Engineer role was — in a word? Epic. I’m not underplaying that word. It was perfect in the way that he captures that character so completely. From brothel owner to survivor to a man enraptured by the idea of the American Dream, it was everything I think that role should be. The performance was dynamic, charismatic, comical, heartbreaking, eyebrow raising, and what a voice! “The American Dream” is this huge showstopping number in Act Two and it does just that, receiving one of the biggest and well-deserved rounds of applause for the night. I’m always curious about The Engineer after the show ends. What happens to him? Does he get to live his dream in America? I imagine he’s hustling and making a life for himself the way he always knows how and doing it well.
One of my favorite duets in the show is one between Kim and Ellen, “I Still Believe” performed stunningly by Emily Bautista’s Kim and Stacie Bono’s Ellen. It is absolutely soul crushing and these two women destroyed me by the power of their voices and emotions. Stacie Bono’s Ellen is particularly strong whenever she appears on stage. She appears late in the show but makes a lasting impact in her interaction with the other characters and battling her own emotions when she’s on her own.
If I could lament for a moment, it’s that we didn’t get to hear more of Christine Bunuan singing after “The Movie in My Mind.” I mean, I KNOW that Gigi doesn’t really get more stage time after that except in the wedding, but I absolutely loved her rendition of this song and wanted to hear MORE. Throw in a song for Gigi during “The American Dream” or something just to bookend that role, but she was wonderful in it.
J. Daughtry absolutely nails it as John, one of Chris’s friends, a soldier, and later developing a program to help reunite American soldiers with the children they left behind in Vietnam knowingly or unknowingly, I imagine. That was a particularly poignant moment for me at the start of Act Two with John imploring to an audience to not forget the children left behind. The kind of passion and reach is evident as he sings, completely drawing me in. As they flashed images of children on the screen on stage, children looking at a camera out toward us, the audience, my mother leaned over and told me, “These look like the orphanages I saw before I found you.” I was adopted from the Philippines but not from an orphanage, even though my mom toured them before she had known about my existence. I only cried harder.
The production itself and its large sets were stunning. You feel transported to Vietnam shifting from background to background, new location to new location without ever leaving your seat. And that scene, yes, that scene is even more effective and affecting because of the barbed wire, the fencing. Hearing the clang of metal and the anguished cries of people unable to leave is absolutely heartbreaking. And yes! GIANT HELICOPTER. THERE IS A HELICOPTER ON THIS STAGE. I thought it was only going to be the image of one but spoiler alert: HELICOPTER.
A show can only be complete with a stunning ensemble and this show has it to spare. Special notice to Jinwoo Jung as Thuy who is equal parts aggravating and haunting, but what a voice! And to the kids who play Tam! I’m not sure which kid we had on the first night of production but the kid was adorable! I instantly recognized Jonelle Margallo from my favorite show, Here Lies Love, that I saw in New York and several times in Seattle. And I also recognized Julius Sermonia from the number of times I’ve seen him on stage in my repeated viewings of Jesus Christ Superstar (one of my favorite productions EVER), King and I, and saw him in Stratford in Canada in Tommy and Fiddler on the Roof. I’m NOT a stalker. I just go to a LOT of shows all over the place, I swear. Also, I can recognize my fellow Filipinos when I see them.
And that’s also important to me, the recognition of people like me on the stage, faces like me, people who look like me, and stories I can relate to. I teared up once or twice or THREE TIMES thinking about how I have a tendency to gravitate toward these kind of shows as I get older, shows where I see people who reflect my cultural heritage staring back at me. I’m a regular theatergoer and it’s not often a sight I get to see and when I do, it’s an incredibly emotional experience.
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, catch Miss Saigon at the Pantages. It’s playing now through August 11th. I know I can’t wait to go back! https://www.hollywoodpantages.com/