Engineer (Kevin Bailey) performs "American Dream."
The heat is on. The troops are assembled. The helicopter is revving up. And on Saturday night, Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities will open its premiere production of "Miss Saigon," 33 years after the city's panicked evacuation.
"Miss Saigon" is the 1989 musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (of "Les Miserables" fame) that takes the plot of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" and airlifts it into the hallucinogenic landscape of neon-lit Saigon at the peak of the Vietnam War, with its go-go girls and war-ravaged GIs.
It's a production (conceived by Fullerton Civic Light Opera) that, according to CLOSBC director Stephanie Coltrin and technical director Christopher Beyries, allows the mega-musical to fit comfortably onto the stage of the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.
And, they say, it doesn't sacrifice any of the musical's big effects, including its signature "Apocalypse Now" moment.
"It's not an easy show," admits Coltrin, a seasoned musical theater veteran. "There are 31 actors, some massive props and a lot of storytelling. There are small intimate scenes mixed with huge masses of people coming and going. If you're in the wrong place at the wrong time in this show, you're dead. It's not 'Oklahoma!' where it's blackout, scene change, move to the next thing. It's seamless."
Those who have seen "Miss Saigon" know exactly what Coltrin is talking about - especially in terms of the helicopter.
"The show is obviously designed around the helicopter moment. So the helicopter takes first priority," says Beyries, who is faced with the task of making all the show's technical challenges come together.
"We're also using a full-size Cadillac on stage. There's no trick. We didn't even have to knock the back wall out," he adds, with a laugh.
In contrast to Coltrin and Beyries, who are self-admitted "Miss Saigon" rookies, Jennifer Paz, who plays the Vietnamese bar girl, Kim; Eric Kunze, as her American soldier/lover, Chris; and dance captain Marc Oka, are combat-proven veterans of "Miss Saigon's" first national tour.
The upcoming performances in the South Bay represent Paz's third tour of duty and Kunze's second.
For Paz, her first enlistment, in 1991, came as the surprise of a lifetime.
"A friend told me about an open-call audition in Vancouver for the first Canadian production of 'Miss Saigon.' So I went," says the diminutive Manila-born singer. "I was 18 and I'd just finished my freshman year at the University of Washington. I remember I sang 'My Favorite Things.' Then they asked me if I knew any songs from the show, and I said I could sing 'I'd Give My Life for You.' Forty-five minutes later they asked me how willing I would be to leave school!"
Paz was offered a job on the spot, replacing a member of the New York company.
"They said I would have to leave in two weeks," she recalls. "When I got home, my mother asked me, 'How did it go?' I said they offered me a Broadway contract. And sure enough, there it was in the mail two days later."
A week before she was due to leave for New York, however, the phone rang.
"They'd lost their Kim alternate for the first national tour," Paz explains. "So they gave me a choice. I could either do the tour or come to New York and be the Kim cover and be in the ensemble."
Paz chose to join the new company, which was to open in Chicago in 1992. Six months into the run she was moved into the top spot. And for the next two years everything went well. Then Paz began to suspect that something was seriously wrong with her voice.
"We were in Detroit," she recalls, "when I began to feel this little something in my throat."
Unable to ignore the problem any longer, she told the producers, "If you want me to open in L.A. (at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1995), you've got to pull me out of the show."
They sent Paz to New York for an examination.
"Sure enough," she says, "there they were, these nodules, sitting on my vocal chords."
Paz's subsequent surgery was performed by the same team of doctors that had saved Julie Andrews' voice. After the procedure, she was put on total vocal rest for a month and a half.
"By the time I got to L.A., they'd found me a really fantastic vocal coach (Ron Anderson), who was really a voice therapist," says Paz. "He was able to restructure my voice. I would see him in the morning and apply what he taught me that night during the show. We ran at the Ahmanson for nine months."
Paz credits Anderson with saving her career, one that has seen her star in the Center Theatre Group's revival of "Flower Drum Song," as Tuptim in "The King and I," and in nontraditionally Asian roles playing Sally Simpson in "The Who's Tommy," Maria Elena Holly in "The Buddy Holly Story" and Fantine in "Les Miserables."
One of her most recent star turns was as the blond Argentine bombshell "Evita."
In the upcoming performances of "Miss Saigon," Paz and Kunze will be joined by CLOSBC veterans Kevin Bailey as the nefarious Engineer; and Misty Cotton as Ellen. Bonifacio Deoso Jr. will appear as Thuy, with Harrison White as John.
Jim Farber (310) 540-5511, Ext. 416 email@example.com