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Paramount’s ‘Miss Saigon’ calls Vietnamese actor home

‘Miss Saigon’

Through Nov. 24

Paramount Theatre,
23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora

Tickets, $36.90-$49.90

(630) 896-6666

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Updated: December 4, 2013 6:23AM

AURORA — “Miss Saigon,” the tragic, musical love story set in war-torn Vietnam, has been at the top of Vi Tran’s blacklist since as long as he can remember.

It was the “I’ll never, ever do that show” show.

Tran, then a young Missouri-based actor, would not be typecast, he proclaimed.

“I avoided the show like the plague,” Tran said. “When you’re a young actor, especially one who’s ethnic, you want to prove to yourself that you belong. You don’t want to run to ‘Miss Saigon’ just because you’re a Vietnamese actor.”

And the story between an American G.I. and Vietnamese girl “who had the best of intentions, but fell in love in the chaos of a war” — now being performed at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora — that was a story that hit too close to home.

Vi Tran was born in Vinh, Vietnam, a “tiny little village” 90 minutes northwest of Saigon. He began life on the run — a sometimes refugee, sometimes prisoner.

“I was a refugee baby, like the little kid that the plot of ‘Miss Saigon’ revolves around,” Tran said. “His mom wants a better life for him and my parents lived that journey.”

Tran’s parents, with two kids in tow, escaped Vietnam when he was a year old. Over the next two years, the family lived in limbo, first in Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia before reaching a neutral zone in Thailand.

“In Cambodia we were captured by the Khmer Rouge and were in a prison camp for a time until the Red Cross was able to smuggle us out,” Tran said.

After years on the move, the family landed in Garden City, Kan., in the early 1980s, with $10 and the clothes on their backs. Tran’s parents immigrated into Kansas during the height of a meat-packing boom in the state. Like a lot of Southeast Asian and Mexican immigrants, Tran’s parents both took factory jobs where the language learning curve wasn’t a significant barrier to employment.

They worked 70-hour weeks “so that I may not know how impoverished we were,” Tran said.

Today, Tran thinks of the Vietnamese actors who “had the chops to perform this show” on Broadway when it debuted in 1989, “but like my parents, they were working doing practical things so that their kids might choose for themselves.”

Tran’s “never-ever” attitude toward the “Miss Saigon” story began to shift after a while.

“I think of them when I finally made the leap to join in telling this story, the ‘Miss Saigon’ story,” Tran said. “I now see it as part of my responsibility to become part of that dialogue.”

Breaking barriers

Tran, who has now committed a decade to acting, said he felt called to audition for a show at the St. Joseph, Mo.-based Western Playhouse this summer.

That show was “Miss Saigon.” He was cast in a lead role: the engineer.

“It’s no longer ‘do I belong?,’” he said at the Paramount in Aurora this week. “It’s ‘what do I have to say?’ and ‘what do I stand for?’”

The actor now sees his refugee background as a gift.

“I will never not be 5-foot-4 and Vietnamese. This is the one instrument that I have,” he said. “At the end of all things, this story is about hope, a mother’s love for their child, for that hope to transcend tragedy.”

While the Missouri company was in rehearsals for “Miss Saigon,” Jim Corti, artistic director of the Paramount Theatre, got word that a Vietnamese actor was performing in the show, and asked him to send audition materials.

In a matter of months, Tran was cast in his second “Miss Saigon” — this time at the Paramount’s rendition in Aurora. A member of the ensemble, Tran dons a white fedora in Act II as the bar owner, a scene where main character Kim, played by Shawna Haeji Shin, is working as a bar girl. In the musical, Vietnamese Kim loves G.I. Chris, played by Brandon Moorhead.

In addition to Tran, cast members of the Paramount’s “Miss Saigon” are of Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipino, Latino and European descent. The need to field a number of Asian actors led to the Paramount casting a wide casting net. Cast members hail from New Jersey, California, New York and London, according to Jennette Nohl, company manager of the Paramount’s Broadway Series.

Tran said he feels very fortunate to serve as understudy to Anthony Joseph Foronda, the actor playing the engineer. On Broadway and in national tours, Foronda has logged more than 4,000 performances of “Miss Saigon.”

Tran’s addition to the cast lends a one-of-a-kind authenticity to the Paramount production. He is the “epilogue” of Tam, Kim’s young son, Corti said.

“(Tran) is so generous, so present and available, to let us know (if the) integrity, authenticity, of what we’re doing is on track,” Corti said.

Healing wounds

As the Vietnam Moving Wall moves into Aurora in a few days and Veterans Day approaches, the “Miss Saigon” story, which depicts the chaos and panic of the fall of Saigon, has special relevance.

In America and Vietnam, the story of the Vietnam War is too often brushed under the rug out of shame and frustration, Tran said. It still exists as a chapter of American history we’d rather forget, he said.

“The wounds are still open,” he said.

But Tran said the show has the power to change that story. After opening night of the Missouri company’s “Miss Saigon,” a veteran reached out to Tran.

“The man said, ‘This young man doing so well. That made my time over there worthwhile,’” Tran said. He was talking about Tran.

“If I had continued to be stubborn, or continued to run away from the conversation, continued to be passive, then those opportunities to tell this story would be lost,” he said.

The importance of his role in that conversation is not lost on Tran.

“If this story, this play, can help heal some of those wounds or even just illicit dialogue about the war, then it’s worth it,” he said.

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