So Schaeffer has the cast doing “table work,” thinking about characters snared in a plot that grafts Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” onto the 1975 fall of Saigon. Imagine: You’re in a sleaze-filled Bangkok, where U.S. soldiers and local prostitutes do business. What’s your attitude?
“Bangkok is the nastiest place in the world,” says Thom Sesma, who plays a small-time hustler known as the Engineer. “And none of us is here for anything else. Except for the refugees.”
“I saw some really disturbing things as a kid walking around the streets of Japan,” says Diana Huey. She’s playing Kim, the local girl smitten with the good-natured American soldier Chris, who has an American wife back home.
Sesma, who played the Engineer on the show’s second national tour from 1995 to 1997, later explains the impact of Signature’s close confines on a show that, at $10.9 million, cost significantly more 22 years ago than this nonprofit troupe’s entire eight-show slate will cost this season.
“The audience can see you sweat,” says Sesma, chatting in a small rehearsal room with Huey. “It changes everything.”
Even on its own limited terms, Signature’s “Saigon” in some ways will be the biggest venture yet for the company that likes to test its limits. An environmental set will loom all around the audience; raw material for Adam Koch’s design includes discarded components from real airplanes, including one said to have flown over Vietnam.
The troupe is trumpeting the show as “the most technically ambitious in the theater’s history,” and is selling $10 backstage tours under the heading “Dreamland: Saigon Backstage.”
The original production was a ballyhooed colossus by the time it made its way from London to New York in 1991. The show, which ushered in the $100 ticket, featured an 18-foot tall statue of Ho Chi Minh, an actual Cadillac for the Engineer to mount lewdly, 46 actors requiring 375 costumes, a crew of 55, plus that spectacular helicopter.
When it finally closed after almost a decade, the New York Times described “Miss Saigon” as “the most technically complex show in Broadway history.”
With 19 actors and an orchestra of 15, the scale is comparatively fractional at Signature, where the success of its own downsized, big-voiced and big-hearted 2008 staging of “Les Misérables” led to the next item in the Boublil-Schönberg catalogue. (To get the rights, Signature had to wrap up this production by October; the film success of “Les Miz” has spurred a new “Miss Saigon” production in London for next spring, with a Broadway transfer and a film version being discussed.)