Miss Saigon is playing in Australia this July, brought to us by the cast and crew at PLOS Musical Productions. The tragic tale is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, and is penned by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (of Les Misérables fame), with additional lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. The production premiered on the West End in 1989, moved to Broadway in 1991, and has since become the thirteenth-longest running Broadway show in history.

Directing PLOS’ latest production is Scott Hili, who saw Miss Saigon on Broadway in 1998. He recalls a particular moment that began his love affair with the show, “[There] were no bows and after the final scene the lights just come up. The audience around me, including myself, sat in silence. Some in tears, unable to move and overcome with emotion.” As a company member of PLOS for over 20 years and having previously been in a production of Miss Saigon in 2009 (with CLOC), it only felt right to accept a chance to direct the show. “I am excited to be directing for them,” he says, “It feels like a very long creative journey of personal growth and education over the years.”

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Guada Bañez (Kim) and Tom Green (Chris). Photo credit – Michael Fletcher

In the coveted role of Kim is Guada Bañez, who is particularly honoured to work with the cast and crew at PLOS. “Scott Hili’s vision of the show is so clear and so clever. It’s definitely a fresh take on the show,” she says. When asked about her role, she discusses the difficulty of portraying someone who has lived a completely different, adversity-ridden life. “Kim goes through an incredible amount of hardship before and throughout the show. She has so much life experience at only 17 years old. Being lucky enough to have been born and grown up in modern-day suburban Australia, it’s definitely been a challenge stepping into her shoes.” Facing similar challenges is Tom Green, who plays the role of Chris. “Chris is quite a complex individual,” he reflects, “Trying to think like him [is] difficult. The biggest challenge from the piece is finding the correct emotions at the correct time, you are just so overwhelmed constantly.”

The story follows a young Vietnamese girl and an American GI who find love amidst the war in 1975, and is renowned for being an emotional journey for the audience. “Saigon is a show that challenges the way you think and feel,” Hili observes, “For some it brings back memories of the war and its affect on society, for others it evokes feelings of loss, love and sacrifice.” It is through these universal themes that Green feels connected to his character (Chris); “We have all in some way had to deal with loss and distance, and reaching a point where we have to decide [that] maybe it’s time to move on.”

The audition process was particularly tough, according to Hili. “It is important to note the challenge in casting this production, using Asian and Ethnic cast members in such roles as written,” he says, “[Unfortunately] the talent of such ethnicities required, simply did not audition for the show, an element that was discussed at length in pre-production.” Luckily Bañez auditioned for Kim, a role she longed to do having been inspired for years by Lea Salonga, who found fame after originating the role of Kim in London’s West End. “I consider Lea Salonga as kind of my mentor; she’s my biggest inspiration when it comes to performing, and not just because we’re both Filipina!” “Strong, female Asian leading characters in musical theatre are still so underrepresented,” Bañez adds, “I feel very lucky and honoured to be able to represent my heritage in some way on stage.”

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Tom Green (Chris) and Guada Bañez (Kim). Photo credit – Michael Fletcher

Physical appearance however, was only one of several things to consider. “[We looked for] performers who were willing to take risks and trust in a creative process,” Hili notes, “As a director it is not just about creatively envisaging the piece to fruition, [but] choosing the right, talented people, with a healthy ego, a good sense of work ethic and a maturity that will enable them to work well with the others.” Consequently, the camaraderie in the rehearsal room appears to be strong, especially between the show’s leading acts. “My go-to person in rehearsals is Guada (Kim),” says Green, “Having someone in the same position as you, who you can class as one of your best friends and know that they will tell you the truth is really reassuring.” “We get along really well,” Bañez concurs, “Tom is now one of my best mates off-stage and on. It’s always a comfort to have your best friend going through the same kind of thing because he understands things in the same way that I do.”

Producing Miss Saigon at the amateur theatre level has proved to be rewarding; “We have a unique opportunity in amateur theatre to create new versions, interpretations of musicals, rather than to replicate professional productions on a scaled down budgetary constrained production,” Hili observes. Green also recognizes the beauty of the flexibility allowed in the creative process; “The vision that the production team has created is beyond astonishing, it is a real credit to them.” Furthermore, Hili speaks highly of the show’s seasoned performers and first-time choreographers, Mon and Tess Sabbatucci; “These girls and I worked closely on the development of the choreography for the show…with many discussions on style and form, time, space and energy, [these] girls have risen to the challenge and created some incredible work that serves as a story telling device in it’s own right.”

While it is a tough show to take on, the effort certainly pays off. “[Miss Saigon] really requires an ensemble of true triple threats…I feel like I’ve learned so much from all the amazing performers I get to be around all the time,” Bañez says. Hili also acknowledges the importance of encouraging growth within in the theatre scene; “I have my own little philosophy I live by when directing community and amateur theatre. If each member of the cast and crew can finish the season having learnt a new skill, refined a process, observed something new that they can then use and bring to their next rehearsal room or project, then I feel that their involvement in their hobby has fulfilled its role and that I have contributed to that.”

As for what audiences should take away when the lights go up, Bañez hopes it “shocks and moves anyone who comes to see it”, and Green says that the show is one that “no one is going to forget in a hurry”. Hili responds, “What I wish, as the creative director, is for an audience to come in with an open mind…if we move one person in the audience through our storytelling then we have done our job. Take from it what you will and immerse yourself in the story for a few hours.” He adds, “Bring tissues!”

Make sure to catch the show from the 22nd of July!

PLOS’ Miss Saigon is playing Frankston Arts Centre from July 22 – 30, 2016.

More info at: http://plos.asn.au/

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