Christine Bunuan, other Fil-Ams, lead ‘Miss Saigon’ nat’l tour
NEW YORK — Filipino American actress Christine Bunuan will play the role of Gigi—a Vietnamese woman struggling during wartime—in the North American national tour of “Miss Saigon.”
She joins Fil-Am actress Emily Bautista, who will play Kim, and Filipino actor Red Concepcion, who will play the Engineer. Both characters, like Gigi, face complicated circumstances during difficult times.
Fil-Am actors Eymard Cabling is Engineer alternate and Eric Badique is Engineer understudy. In the ensemble are Fil-Am actors Joven Calloway, Max Ehrlich, Keila Halili, Garrick Macatangay, Jonelle Margallo and Julius Sermonia and Fil-Australian Emilio Ramos.
The tour kicks off at Providence Performing Arts Center, Rhode Island on Sept. 21. The show will then travel to cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Dallas, among others.
This tour based on the 2017-2018 Broadway revival where Bautista was the Kim understudy. She was still in the middle of her college studies when Bautista was cast.
The revival featured Fil-Am actors Eva Noblezada as Kim, Lianah Sta. Ana as Kim alternate, Jon Jon Briones as Engineer, Billy Bustamante as Engineer alternate and Devin Ilaw as Thuy. Filipino actress Rachel Ann Go played Gigi.
The Broadway revival closed in January and Bautista went on to play Eponine in the touring production of “Les Miserables” (READ about it here) prior to being cast as Kim for this production.
Concepcion joins this production straight from playing the Engineer in the United Kingdom and Ireland tour (where Filipino actor Chuck Marbella has taken over the role).
Bunuan is a mezzo-soprano who has worked with Chicago theater companies such as Steppenwolf, The Goodman, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, among others.
Born in Vallejo, California, she was a frustrated singer in her youth and it was “Miss Saigon” that inspired her to build her skills.
“I fell in love with ‘Miss Saigon’ in high school,” she says.
She had received a CD of the soundtrack for Christmas from her parents. “I played it over and over and over again until I knew every lyric in the show. I cried. I laughed. I loved every second of it.
“I loved the music, the lyrics, the story. I had the usual favorite songs: ‘Movie in My Mind,’ ‘Sun and Moon,’ ‘Last Night of the World,’ ‘I’d Give My Life for You.’
“When I learned that Lea Salonga, a Filipina, was playing the leading role in a huge Broadway show, I thought maybe I could do this too.
“I wasn’t aware that representation mattered then but this show certainly opened my eyes to opportunities that I never thought would be possible.”
“I have spent my life auditioning for Kim” Bunuan confesses. However, she admits she was “never quite right for that role.” But it didn’t mean she isn’t right for the show.
When her agent Jim McCaffrey from Stewart Talent Chicago contacted her about auditioning for the character of Gigi, “I never thought I would get called in for this role,” she recalls.
She flew to New York to audition and processed the feedback she received. “I tried applying their direction each time I sang. Then they asked me to come back to dance. I am not a dancer so I was very nervous.”
In a later audition with director Laurence Connor, “I sang ‘Movie in My Mind’ for him three times, each time digging deeper into what life was like for a Vietnamese woman who had to do what she needed to survive.”
Bunuan had previously done a Chicago staging of the show. “Our incredible Chicago director, Rachel Rockwell, had passed away earlier that week. I had dedicated my audition to her and I felt like she was in the room with me, pushing me to be the best I could be. It all seemed like a dream. It was the best audition I have ever given in my life.”
Celebration and preparation
Bunuan was at home with her husband Sean when she got the call informing her that she got the part. “Sean and I screamed with joy!”
She remembers her agent then explaining the details of the job “but I couldn’t tell you what he said. He had me at ‘Gigi.’ Sean and I celebrated by getting all-you-can-eat sushi one last time before I needed to get into shape for the show.”
By her own estimation, Bunuan has spent most of her career playing quirky, funny roles. “It has been a nice change to play Gigi,” she says.
She savored a rehearsal session where she discussed the musical’s context with Laurence Connor, executive producer Seth Sklar-Heyn and composer Claude-Michel Schonberg.
“We talked about what these women in the story had to do to survive every second of every day in a war-torn country. They shared images of young women. These women didn’t want to be prostitutes. They had no other choice.
“The pain of losing their homes, people they love, everything they know and the fear of being tortured or killed any second was their reality.”
Family and love
“I could barely get through my song ‘Movie in My Mind’ because of those images going through my head.”
“It also made me think of my family in the Philippines and how difficult life is there,” Bunuan says.
“What they have to do to survive. How hard they have to work to make just a little bit of money to take care of their families. And how they dream of coming to America for a better life.”
Bunuan believes that it’s timely for ‘Miss Saigon’ to go on the road.
“Claude-Michel sat us down on our very last run-through rehearsal before we moved to Providence, Rhode Island. He reminded us that we have a message we must share: It’s a story about a mother’s sacrifice for her child. This is a story about love.
“That’s what I hope to share with people. Everyone can relate to these stories.
“Miss Saigon” has music by Claude Michel Schonberg with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil, adapted from original French lyrics by Boublil, and additional lyrics by Michael Mahler. Musical staging by Bob Avian, additional choreography by Geoffrey Garratt; production design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley, based on an original concept by Adrian Vaux; costume design by Andreane Neofitou; lighting design by Bruno Poet; sound design by Mick Potter; orchestrations by William David Brohn.
READ about Christine Bunuan’s previous play about fake news here.
READ about Emily Bautista playing Eponine in the touring production of ‘Les Miserables’ here.
READ about Chuck Marbella’s nine years of working as an actor in “Miss Saigon” and his Monchichi collection here.
READ about Jon Jon Briones’ Broadway debut as the Engineer here.
READ about Devin Ilaw in his role as Thuy here.