Based on the opera tale of a geisha left behind by her American lover, the Vietnam War-era story "Miss Saigon" is a larger-than-life theatrical experience complete with a full-scale helicopter.
The Vietnam War: A war some people don’t know much about, and others don’t want to remember. A war some say we fought too long and others say not long enough. A war that divided one nation, then divided another. Forty years later, it’s a war we can’t forget.
No matter how you feel about the war in Vietnam, there’s no denying it stirs up powerful emotions.
So does Miss Saigon, an epic love story about a young Vietnamese woman (Kim) orphaned by the war, who falls in love with an America G.I. (Chris) days before Saigon falls. They’re torn apart when the troops are forced to leave as the enemy approaches. Alone and fighting to protect her son, Kim defies the odds to keep not only her son alive but the hope that one day she will be reunited with his father.
Anthony Festa, who plays Chris, visited Vietnam three months ago to research the role to bring more authenticity to his performance. The result was more than he imagined.
“I wanted to see where the evacuation of the last helicopter took place,” says Festa, who spent time at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, reading every story. “I got to see a different perspective of the war than I was taught in high school. I got to see it from their [the Vietnamese] point of view, and how devastating it was for their country.”
Armed with new understanding, Festa took what he learned in Vietnam, and translated it to the part he’s played for about a year. “It’s enriched the role in a lot of different areas,” says Festa. “It was so eye-opening to see the things we left behind as America.”
G.I.s didn’t just leave behind their women and children; they left a community.
“We were in Vietnam for almost 20 years. While our servicemen were there, they built lives,” says Festa. “They had a guy who fitted their suits, and a barber who cut their hair. They were all local men. They were people Americans knew and trusted and grew bonds with, and then we just uprooted and left. It devastated some of the soldiers on an emotional front.”
For the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), which fought alongside the Americans, it devastated them as well. U.S. evacuation meant their imminent death. When Festa crawled through the Cu Chi tunnel, where the Vietnamese used to survive, it hit him in a whole new way.
“There’s this devastating picture, if you Google it, where they take off their boots and their American gear and leave everything in the middle of the road,” says Festa. “It blows your mind because if they were caught wearing that [uniform], they would be shot in the head.”
As a soldier, Chris deals with the fallout of the war in a way that reflects what many veterans go through.
“Whether it was Afghanistan or any of the wars, it’s post-traumatic stress from the things that they dealt with over there,” says Festa.
Veterans are not the only ones who can relate to the story. Though the war ended 40 years ago, Miss Saigon is relevant to today’s headlines.
“You turn on the news, and you’ll see all that’s happening with immigration,” says Festa. “Then people see the show, and they’re thinking to themselves, ‘What has changed?’”
Likewise, Kim’s story of survival couldn’t be more relevant. Miss Saigon parallels the strength of today’s women in so many ways.
“It’s a beautiful thing for women to have strength right now, but also own it,” says Festa. “Kim does both in a beautiful way. Not only does she bring a child into a devastated war-torn world alone, but she fiercely protects him and ensures his survival through the most unbelievable circumstances.
“The love she pours into that is breathtaking to watch.”
Festa says the role of Chris “is amazingly taxing” on his emotions. Not only is it an emotional roller coaster, but it’s a physical challenge as well. As an American G.I., he’s supposed to be at the peak of physical fitness. To keep his body, mind, and emotions in shape, he eats healthy, stays physically fit, and warms up before he goes onstage.
“I always check in with [myself] on every show,” says Festa. “I breathe into my body. That prepares myself for what I’m about to do.”
Keeping his physical body in tune with his emotional and mental state is critical for Festa to take on such an emotional role night after night, but there are benefits.
“I release all my emotions on that stage,” says Festa. “Once I’ve tapped into them, and I’ve let them go, it’s almost like a cathartic experience for me.”
Festa uses the loss of his father, who died four years ago, to tap into what it feels like to lose somebody.
“Loss compellingly affects our souls. I try to translate that to 2,000 people every night,” says Festa. “There is a beautiful moment in the show where you can’t even hear a pin drop, and I can almost feel everybody looking at me at the same time. It’s like everybody’s heartbeat lines up together, and I know that they are with me in the audience.”
Although the revival of Miss Saigon stays true to history, many little differences bring the show to life in a new way. The cast met with the creative team for input on the show, their characters, and songs, then honed it to make it their own. Though the subject matter may be darker than some musicals and the scenes truer to life than many may be comfortable with, the messages of love, loss, desperation, and sacrifice will touch people right where they are.
There’s a song Festa sings every night called “Why, God Why?” It’s just him and the audience; no one else is onstage.
“When I first started the tour, it became this beautiful ballad that I loved to sing,” says Festa. “Now, when I take the song on, the beginning is a monologue, and it’s a conversation with me, a U.S. soldier who is representing all of America for those watching me.”
Festa performs that song with a lot of weight because he wants to let the audience know he’s representing America. “I want to show them how much pain both sides of this story felt and dealt with,” he says. “If it does anything for people when they leave the theater, I hope it just opens their eyes to what happened.”
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St. | Tulsa
Dec. 31: 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 1-2: 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 3: 8 p.m.
Jan. 4: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
Jan. 5: 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m.
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