More story. Less spectacle.
That is the basic promise of the Casa Manana’s upcoming production of the long-running Broadway musical Miss Saigon, which opens Saturday. That means the famous, theater-rattling helicopter landing scene, which is to this show what the crashing chandelier is to The Phantom of the Opera, may not be the most memorable aspect of this particular staging.
“There is a certain expectation for that. It’s on the darn poster and everything,” said director Tim Bennett. “But I hope that people don’t come in and say, ‘Gosh, I can’t wait to see the helicopter.’ Because there’s a much bigger show here. I want to be sure that story is told. We have been talking a lot about how we can build that moment. We know how we are going to do it. But I don’t want to give anything away.”
Bennett, a Las Vegas-based director who has staged several shows at Casa, including Rent and a dazzling presentation of the venerable 42nd Street, thinks audiences are going to be surprised by what they see.
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“They’re going to come in expecting a big spectacle, and it is going to be an elegant story of love and self-sacrifice, and people discovering elements of life that are larger than them,” said Bennett, who joked that his suggestions about the helicopter scene (which involved the Texas National Guard and tearing the roof off of Casa) had been rejected. “We are going for a show that is as lush and beautiful as the music is.”
Whether it’s the helicopter or the music, Miss Saigon has been an audience favorite since it opened in London in 1989. After almost 10 years on the Great White Way (from 1991 to 2001), where it became the 11th longest running musical in history, the show continues to be staged around the world.
Based loosely on Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon tells the story of an American soldier, Chris, who falls for a Vietnamese woman, Kim. She has his child, Tam, but the end of the conflict separates them. Chris returns to Vietnam three years later with his American wife, Ellen. The fate of Tam is debated (should the child stay with this mother or go back to America with Chris and his new wife?), and Chris and Kim are forced to deal with the sinister Engineer, an entrepreneur, deal-maker and pimp who seldom has anyone’s interest other than his own in mind. And, if you know Puccini’s original, you know that things do not work out well in the end.
The cast Bennett has assembled has plenty of experience with the show. Joseph Anthony Foronda has sung the Engineer on Broadway, and Jennifer Paz was Kim in a national touring production. And joining them, in the role of Chris, will be a performer who is new to this musical but not to the area.
“This is where I realized that this is what I wanted to do,” said Daniel Rowan about Casa Manana, recalling his involvement in the theater’s production of Sweeney Todd a few years ago. “This is where I got my Equity Card when I was 19 years old.”
The Longview native has since taken his talents to New York, which he now calls home. His credits there have included a part in an off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks.
“I saw that production and, afterwards, I went up to the director and told him I wanted to play [the young male lead],” said Rowan, who graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Asian philosophy and religion. “About four months later, he called me in to audition and I got the part.”
The role of Chris will ask Rowan to walk into war that was long over before he was born.
“I remember studying about it in school, especially about how it was broadcast. It was the first televised war,” said Rowan, who also worked as a model in New York. “And I watched a lot of documentaries about the Vietnam War to prepare. I was especially struck with the gritty rawness of it all.”
But he found the musical aspect of the show much easier to take.
“It is [a role] every actor in his 20s wants to play,” said Rowan, 25. “Singing this music is like biting into a piece of dark chocolate. It is a wonderfully sweet challenge.”
Bennett, on the other hand, will be facing the daunting task of deconstructing what is usually a highly elaborate telling of this story set in a dark and controversial period of American history.
“I don’t think this show takes a pro- or anti-American view at all. It is more universal than that,” said Bennett, who will also be doing the choreography in this production. “It sort of accepts that world for what it was and shows us these characters fighting against it.”
Bennett said he feels that his No. 1 job will be to remain focused on the most essential elements of the musical: “I have to look at the material and find the core story and tell that as simply and as beautifully as I can.”
With or without a helicopter.