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The GI and the bar girl

The musical 'Miss Saigon' receives a Thai makeover.

Publication Date : 28-09-2012

 

When director Takonkiet Viravan first saw the musical "Miss Saigon" in London 22 years ago, he vowed that one day he would stage his own version for a Thai audience. Now that dream is about to come true, with the love story between a Vietnamese bar girl and an American GI coming to the stage next week with an all-Thai cast.

"This is the musical that inspired me to work in this field so it's really thrilling to see it in the Thai language," he says.

Takonkiet made the decision to stage "Miss Saigon" seven years ago, even before opening his Rachadalai Theatre, but back then was still thinking in terms of importing the English production.

"Then I said to myself, 'we have the experience and the skills to do it in Thai with Thai actors'. I'm very glad that we received the license to do it," he says.

"Miss Saigon" is one of producer Cameron Mackintosh's all time hit musicals. Written by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, it premiered in London's West End in 1989 and sent Filipina singer Lea Salonga to stardom. The musical has been performed on Broadway as well as in Australia, South Korea and Japan.

The Korean and Japanese productions have been performed in the local language by local casts even though the roles in the story are a mix of Western and Asian.

"I saw the Korean version and I was thrilled to see that the American GI characters were played by Korean actors without blond wigs. That told me that if the production and the acting are strong, anyone can take the role regarding of race and nationality," he says.

"Miss Saigon" is based on Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly", and similarly tells the tragic tale of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover. Set in the 1970s, it centres on a romance between Kim, a Vietnamese bar girl and Chris, an American GI. Chris leaves Saigon without knowing of her pregnancy and marries a woman in the US while Kim waits for him to return with their son.

"Miss Saigon" fits into the melodramatic soap-opera cliche that is guaranteed to touch the hearts of a local audience. Thais are familiar with the plot too, as there is already a Thai version of "Madame Butterfly" in the form of "Sao Kraufah", also inspired by the opera, and telling the story of a Chiang Mai woman who waits for her officer husband to return, blissfully unaware that he married someone else.

"The Thai audience will relate to this story more easily that other Cameron Macintosh's hits like 'Phantom of the Opera' and 'Les Miserables'," the director says.

"Miss Saigon" also depicts how people dream of having a better life in America through the Engineer character - the bar owner - who tries to use Kim and her son to help him get to the US.

"I always get different aspects every time I see this musical. Perhaps as I get older I understand more about the motivations of each character. In any case, it helps me to interpret the roles and communicate with the actors," he says.

Since opening the Rachadalai Theatre in 2007, most of Takonkiat's productions have boasted a love theme and been successful. The director says that Thai audiences relate to love stories and always want to know the details.

"Giving them 'Miss Saigon' in Thai will mean far more to them than the English version," he says.

But adapting the Cameron MacIntosh version to a Thai production comes with several strict conditions. While the songs can be translated into Thai, the melody and notes must remain exactly the same. That's been a headache, as Thai is a tonal language and meanings differ considerably when the intonation changes.

Cameron Macintosh also doesn't allow the actress playing Kim to perform more than six shows in a week, so Takonkiat has been forced to cast two actresses in his musical, which has seven shows spread over five days.

The two actresses have stage experience from Takonkiet's previous musicals: Kulkornpat Phothongnak was a maid in "Si Phandin" ("The Four Reigns") while Kanda withayanuphab-yuenyong was in the "Thavi Phob" ensemble and played Prapai in "Si Phaendin."

"The stage is the only place in this country where an actress can play a supporting maid role before going on to be the lead," says the director.

Napat "Gun the Star 6" Injaiuea plays the Chris after his successful portrayal of Khun Prem in "Si Phandin" while singer Chalathit "Ben" Tantiwut takes on the role of "the Engineer".

"Gun is both soft and tough, and is very credible as the solider. Ben was born to be in this musical," says the director.

Other cast members include Suveera "Q Flure" Boonrod as Chris's friend John and Napassorn "New the Star" Puthornjai as Chris's wife Ellen.

 

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