Three Filipina divas take center stage in the musical memoir Road To Saigon, now in its world premiere engagement at East West Players. 

Besides beauty, talent, and country of ancestry, Joan Almadilla, Jennifer Paz, and Jenni Selma have one more thing in common. They all three starred as Kim in Miss Saigon, either on Broadway or in the Broadway National Tour.

Cleverly developed and imaginatively directed by the very much on-a-roll Jon Lawrence Rivera, Road To Saigon proves a fine showcase for three of musical theater’s most talented leading ladies who intersperse Miss Saigon-related memories with a selection of songs that influenced their lives, impeccably accompanied by musical director/arranger Nathan Wang on piano and Richie Rivera on drums, with musical staging by the divine Kay Cole.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that there is no music from Miss Saigon in Road To Saigon, aside from a few bars of “I Still Believe” on the piano. On the other hand, any production which features tunes as diverse as “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” “New York State Of Mind,” and “Tomorrow” performed by stars as musically gifted as Almedilla, Paz, and Selma is no slouch in the entertainment department.

Rivera and his cast divide the evening into segments titled “Road To Saigon,” “Casting,” “Auditions,” “Lea Salonga,” “Childhood,” and “Before Miss Saigon.”  At times, it’s one of the threesome alone on stage sharing memories with the audience; at times the remaining two provide backup or simply an ear to the one in the spotlight; at other times the full cast join voices in three-part harmony.  Variety is not only the spice of life. It’s also one of the keys to Road To Saigon’s success.

Almedilla tells of her first Kim performance on Broadway with only six day’s preparation, about making new friends in her very first musical theater job, and about exploring New York, independent for the first time in her young life.  She sings Dianne Reeves’ “Bridges” in English and Tagalog and “Home” from The Wiz, and she leads “I Say A Little Prayer For You,” with Paz and Selma singing Dreamgirls-style backup. One of Almedilla’s amusing anecdotes has her warming up on the 12th floor fire escape with “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” till the folks on the 10th floor tell her to cool it.  Others deal with her Catholic Girls’ School upbringing and her one-time desire to be a nun—which Miss Saigon put an end to.

Paz, too, faced her first audience as Kim (in the Chicago production) with little prep; she hadn’t even had a complete run-through.  The Ovation Award-winner recalls explaining to her mother the difference between alternate, standby, and understudy, and the fact that at one time there were so many cast members ready to go on as Kim that they called it a “Kim Farm.”  Paz gets laughs with stories about her nemesis, “Annoying Girl,” Eve to Paz’s Margo Channing. Remembering her first meeting with Miss Saigon’s French composer-writers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Paz segueways appropriately into “Here I Am” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  (“The way to be, to me, is French.  The way to say ‘La Vie’ is French.”) She pays homage to her mother with William Finn’s exquisite “Anytime” and inspires a bunch of laughs with the tangy revenge song “In Short,” aka “In Short, I Hope You Die.”

At one time Paz’s understudy, Selma tells of the excitement she felt getting word that she was to play Kim for the first time in an actual performance.  Like her Road To Saigon costars, Selma’s upbringing was sheltered, and she found living on her own in Chicago a revelation.  “Through The Fire” is Selma’s tribute to the dance captain who got this “non-dancer” in shape for Miss Saigon’s “American Dream” number, thereby insuring her a “passport to Broadway.”  Kelly Clarkson’s “Beautiful Disaster” proves a perfect vehicle for Selma’s powerful belt as does “Listen,” from the film adaptation of Dreamgirls.

Besides their Miss Saigon experiences, Road To Saigon’s threesome share an admiration and affection for the original Kim, Philippines superstar Lea Salonga, a presence in their lives since Salonga’s career beginnings at the ripe old age of seven. Tribute is paid to Salonga by each, with Almedilla singing “Someone’s Waiting For You,” a Lea hit from The Rescuers, Paz soloing another Salonga hit, “From A Distance,” and Selma belting “Tomorrow” from an early Lea Salonga stage success, Annie.

The evening closes with Almedilla leading her “Saigon sisters” in a bouncy “Waray-Waray”—in Tagalog, and the threesome performing a moving version of Scott Alan’s “Watch Me Soar.”

The show looks gorgeous, with John H. Binkley’s abstract red set beautifully and imaginatively lit by Jeremy Pivnick. Its stars sound great as amped by Bob Blackburn’s sound design, and look just as great gowned by Rachel Shachar, with several costume changes each. Ken Takemoto is property master and Jaclyn Kalkhurst is stage manager.

Road To Saigon works as a showcase for three supremely talented leading ladies, each with her own distinctive voice and style. It succeeds also as an anecdote-spiced tour through Miss Saigon memoryland. As a musical revue with an eclectic song selection, it scores a bull’s-eye. Finally, Road To Saigon gets points for the inspiration it is sure to provide to L.A.’s Asian community, in particular its large and vital Filipino community, ably represented by a trio of their favorite daughters—Joan Almedilla, Jennifer Paz, and Jenni Selma—all three in fabulous form.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 19, 2010
                                                                                                             Photos: Michael Lamont

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