With over 4000 performances, across 28 countries, in 300 cities, and translated
in 15 languages, there is no doubt that Miss Saigon is truly one of the most successful and highly-anticipated musicals of all time. Its enormous success can be attributed to the timeless love story of Kim, a 17-year-old Vietnamese bar girl who falls in love with Chris, an American G.I. during the Vietnam War in the 1970s.
This unparalleled musical which is partly based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, was originally staged in 1989 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Miss Saigon’s 10-year run is considered to be the longest-running musical in Drury Lane.
A number of world-class Filipino artists have already played a significant role in the success of the previous productions of Miss Saigon. These include Lea Salonga (Tony and Olivier Awards winner), Monique Wilson, Ima Castro, Jenine Desiderio, Jamie Rivera, among others.
As Miss Saigon marks its 25th anniversary this May 2014, famed British theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh relives the glory days of
the iconic play as it returns to the West End at the Prince Edward Theatre in London. What makes the West End revival even more exciting is that apart from singer/actress Rachelle Ann Go (previously featured in the Filipino Expat), two exceptionally talented Filipino performers will once again make their mark in the history of Miss Saigon.
Meet the new Kim
At first glance, Eva Noblezada, an 18-year old US born Filipino-Mexican artist, may seem to be your typical youngster who simply loves London’s bustling, cosmopolitan lifestyle. But once she starts singing – her pristine voice filling the air combined with her charming presence and exuding confidence – Noblezada transforms into this one-of-a-kind talent, an undeniable topnotch theatre performer.
Noblezada started performing in amateur dramatics when she was 11 years old at the Northwest School for the Arts, a performing arts high school in Charlotte North Carolina. Growing up, she says, she did not have any musical influences except for Walt Disney animated films like the Lion King and Little Mermaid.
Her remarkable talent caught the attention of Tara Rubin, a renowned Broadway casting director, when she was competing at the 2013 Jimmy Awards (otherwise known as National High School Musical Theater Awards and named in honor of legendary Broadway theatre owner/producer James Nederlander) in New York where she won $2500 worth of scholarship. “After singing a song, she pulled me aside and said I have a perfect audition for you. And that audition was Miss Saigon.”
Noblezada admits that auditioning for the role of Kim, and for Mackintosh, was an incredible but nerve- wracking experience.
“He was there one time. My last audition was in front of him. [When] I walked into the room and saw him, I just wanted to pee in my pants. I couldn’t stop sweating. [But] he’s such a kind soul. When you start singing in front of him, you realize you’re doing what you love. It’s so easy,” beams Noblezada.
Noblezada knows she’s got big shoes to fill. However, she admits to not feeling intimidated at all when compared to Lea Salonga. “Lea’s performance was classic. It’s gorgeous and it will be gorgeous until the end of time. However, with this production, it’s different. Time has changed. There’s so much more in society that has changed. It will never be a competition with Lea. It will always be something different.”
The young talent says she feels fortunate for bagging the coveted role of Kim. “When you realize that you’re in a special place you can’t take that for granted.”
Meet the Engineer
From being an audition facilitator to becoming the play’s Engineer, California-based theatre artist Jon Jon Briones has come a long way since joining the crew of Miss Saigon more than two decades ago.
“After they found Kim [Lea Salonga], they came back to the Philippines to cast the Asian ensemble and I was working for them [Miss Saigon],” recalls the 49 year-old Briones, who was responsible for scheduling people and handing their resumes to Mackintosh at that time.
Briones has been passionate about singing and acting ever since he can remember. One day, he narrates, he just found the courage to get up there and show what he could do for the show to Macintosh. He simply spilled out his guts, he says.
“So that day, I got my headshot and resume and handed them to Cameron. He looked at me and he said, ‘Oh you’re going to audition?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’” shares Briones.
He adds, “I think maybe they were not expecting anything good from me because I was working for them. They didn’t think I was an actor which was good. There were no expectations.”
Briones says that even though he was already working for Mackintosh, auditioning for Miss Saigon still proved to be heart-pounding. “I was nervous. He’s the producer of Les Miserables and other successful musicals. These people create careers. I knew who he was. But I also knew I didn’t have anything to lose. If I didn’t do it, I would always regret it.”
For the past 18 years, Briones has been performing the role of the Engineer (originally portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) in the musical’s various tours in the United Kingdom, United States and Asia including the Philippines. Despite all that, he never gets tired of doing research as part of his preparation for the role. He believes that it is easier when a performer understands the role and when he has a sense of its history.
Leaving his family in the US was a tough decision for Briones. “[At first] It was very difficult because we’re never away from each other. We were so blessed that we were always together. But now, both my kids go to school and at the same time performing in LA [Los Angeles]. And my wife has her business in LA. So I can’t take that away from them because I’m going back after a year anyway. This is our life!”
Asked what’s the most important thing he learned from Miss Saigon that he shares with his kids? “I tell my kids that no matter what you do, whatever it is, make sure you’re having fun. When you’re having fun you will do it forever and you do it without complaining,” says Briones.