If Lea Salonga was the breakout star of the original production of the West End production of “Miss Saigon” when it premiered in London in 1989, another Filipino is making headlines for the revival of the Vietnam War musical 25 years later.
Jon Jon Briones, who plays the role of the wheeler-dealer Engineer in the new production now running at London’s Prince Edward Theatre, reminds audiences why this wily character is the main character in this modern retelling of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” – he gets the final bow at curtain call -- and not the tragic bar girl Kim, now played by 18-year-old Filipino-American Eva Noblezada.
Briones, who was part of the chorus in the original West End company with Salonga and British star Jonathan Pryce as Engineer, brings a more sinister edge to the cynical pimp who runs the honky tonk bar Dreamland that caters to the American GIs during the final days of the Vietnam War.
It is Engineer who recruits the orphaned Kim for his girly bar and introduces her to Chris, a Marine who falls in love with the young Vietnamese girl. And when the star-crossed lovers are separated amid the chaos during the fall of Saigon, it is Engineer who helps Kim and her son flee to Bangkok as they hope to eventually find their way to the United States.
Instead of the more flamboyant portrayals of Engineer throughout the musical’s original 10-year run, Briones fashions a more sinister underworld character, an unapologetic schemer looking to profit from war. With his oily long hair pulled into a ponytail and thin moustache, the 48-year-old Filipino imbues Engineer with a snaky charm to go with his biting solos, “If You Want to Die in Bed” and especially “The American Dream.”
He fully embraces this show-stopping number, which he performs as if possessed by his lust for wealth, dry-humping the Cadillac that emerges onstage, carrying a seemingly naked Rachelle Ann Go, wrapped only in a fur coat.
But Briones doesn’t just bristle with sarcasm; beneath the snark, one can also feel a sense of concern with Kim and her son – albeit one that’s forced upon him by circumstance and from which he expects some kind of payback.
His intense portrayal reflects the overall darker, bleaker vision of director Laurence Connor for the 25-year-old musical, which now opens with Kim caught amid an air strike and taken by the Engineer.
The rambunctious opening number takes on a more rowdy, explicit tone, with new lyrics like “The heat is on in Saigon / The girls are ready to screw.”
Whereas the original staging was more sexy and exotic, Connor doesn’t shirk from the real seedy nature of the Dreamland bar. The atmosphere here drips with the pure lust of the American soldiers, as the jaded girls go about their job with a sense of detachment.
“The Movie in My Mind,” sung with clarity and strength by Go, isn’t so much about the romantic dream of finding a GI to take them to New York but more of a momentary mental escape from their tawdry existence.
During the “wedding” of Kim and Chris, the bar girls in attendance watch with disdain, toasting their fellow bar girl with a mixture of envy and sarcasm.
Even Kim is no longer the “princess” that Salonga so sympathetically portrayed, her eyes glistening with true love. Indeed, when Kim makes her entrance in “The Heat is On,” she no longer introduces herself as having “a heart like the sea”; instead she foreshadows with the new line, “I’m so much more than you see.”
Noblezada brings a hardened edge to Kim, more stubborn than naïve, more practical than romantic, with a belter’s voice compared to Salonga’s more pristine tones. While this tougher interpretation doesn’t diminish the emotion of the musical’s tragic ending, it certainly adds to this revival’s more graphic depiction of war.
But among the changes introduced by Connor, the biggest puzzler is his more sympathetic depiction of Ellen, Chris’ American wife, who is given a totally new song (“Maybe” instead of the villain-y “It’s Her Or Me”), and a more pronounced participation in the final tableau.
The director also had a different staging for the dramatic finale that somehow blunted the anguish of Kim’s final act.
But Connor also stepped up the tension in the musical’s other big moments. For one, Thuy (played with romantic passion by Korean star Kwang Ho Hong) is not the sly villain in this production but one who is just as pained and victimized as Kim. This made Thuy’s death an emotional turning point for Kim, whose distress is effectively conveyed by Noblezada.
Then there is THAT scene. Connor’s staging of the fall of Saigon is an effectively interplay of light, sound effects, video projection and controlled stage chaos, an exhilarating theatrical stretch that captures the despair and confusion of that historical moment. When the helicopter finally appears onstage, it is a true shock-and-awe moment.
Twenty-five years since it opened, “Miss Saigon” still manages to impress with its stagecraft, as well as move audiences with its timeless love story.
And Filipinos are still playing a major part in its enduring success.
“Miss Saigon” is currently running at the Prince Edward Theatre in London's West End.