The helicopter is back. It first landed on Broadway on March 23, 1991, and it stayed for almost ten years — for a total of 4,095 performances — until Jan. 28, 2001. Now it is headed for New Jersey, to the town of Millburn and Paper Mill: The State Theatre of New Jersey.
The helicopter, of course, is the symbol of Miss Saigon, the hit musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil (the creators of Les Miserables and Martin Guerre) about a Vietnamese woman who falls in love and has a child with an American soldier. It’s the Madame Butterfly story reset during the Vietnam War, and it is being restaged, in an entirely new production, by a theatre that has become synonymous with lavish revivals, among them Follies, Show Boat and Funny Girl.
The new production, which runs from Sept. 4 to Oct. 20, is being directed by Mark S. Hoebee, Paper Mill’s associate director, whose credits at the New Jersey theatre include The King and I, Victor/Victoria and The Will Rogers Follies.
“We’re always looking for titles that excite our audiences, and Miss Saigon was very highly rated in our audience survey,” Hoebee says. “I’ve had a fondness for the piece ever since I saw it in the late eighties at the Drury Lane in London.”
Hoebee says he wasn’t sure he could get the rights to the musical, but a Broadway coincidence helped. “I had a chance encounter with the show’s producer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh. I was chosen to stage the gala 6,138th performance last January of Les Miserables — which he also produced — when it passed A Chorus Line to become the second longest-running Broadway show, behind Cats. Cameron and I talked briefly, and he gave us the rights. So it’s from his mouth to our stage.” Hoebee says his production will “be in the spirit” of the Broadway version but will have some new elements. “Instead of focusing as much on technology as the original did, we will try to include more of a human element,” he says. But there will be a helicopter. “It’ll be different from the one in New York, because of our stage’s physical limitations. But it’s sizable.”
The show stars Kevin Gray as the Engineer, a sleazy pimp with a greedy American dream; Dina Lynne Morishita as Kim, the innocent bar girl who falls in love with an American marine; and Aaron Ramey as Chris, the marine. Gray has played the Engineer on tour, and has starred on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera, The King and I and Jesus Christ Superstar and at Paper Mill in The King and I; Morishita has portrayed Eponine on tour in Les Miz; and Ramey was in the Broadway chorus of Thoroughly Modern Millie.
“I’ve tried to keep the company young,” Hoebee says. “One strength of the show is that you realize how young these people are when they fall in love and get caught up in this horrible war. Their youth plays an important part. They’re not jaded. They still believe that truth and love can overcome any obstacle.”