The Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra began bringing Asian culture to Nevada County 20 years ago. Its productions have included “Immortal Heart,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” and “The King and I,” with each year’s performance topping the last. This year, the group aims to top them all with a production “Miss Saigon.”
The Tony-award winning musical, opening Thursday (April 10) is a passionate story about love and war. Imbued with music from beginning to end, “Miss Saigon” is closer to an opera than a traditional musical. Jeannie Wood, executive director of CATS, says they wanted to make a bold statement for their 20th year.
“People often ask how are we going to top this one. It’s not our intention to top the previous performance. It just looks like it. It’s part of our evolution,” Wood said.
“Miss Saigon” takes places during the turmoil of the Vietnam War, when an American soldier and a Vietnamese girl fall in love, only to be separated during the fall of Saigon. Their struggles to find each other over the ensuing years end in tragedy for her and a fighting chance for the child he never knew he had.
Wood, the directors, and the entire cast are thrilled with this year’s selection. The production is based on Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and written by the creators of Les Misérables (music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr.). It originally opened at London’s Theatre Royal in 1989 and ran for 10 years.
“It’s a wonderful show,” Jeffrey Mason, co-musical director and conductor of the CATS production, said. “It’s very dynamic – starting with high-pitched excitement and gets only higher. I think that’s part of the appeal. It’s been tremendously successful all over the world. I think it’s because it’s so gripping.”
While CATS’ annual productions are always the jewel of their mission, the group’s outreach and education extends past the stage. They work toward educating and enlightening the community with workshops, cooking classes, and excursions. Accompanying this year’s production is an opportunity to attend a performance of “Madam Butterfly” at the San Francisco War Memorial. The group outing includes a no-host brunch at the San Francisco Civic Center and a pre-opera talk at the theatre.
CATS is also organizing a trip to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Past outings have included trips to China (coinciding with “Golden Child”), Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp during World War II (“Snow Falling on Cedars”), and Wakamatsu Silk and Tea Colony. Through the years there’s also been tea ceremonies, sushi making and sake tastings, luaus, Chinese New Year Festivals, Japanese flower arranging, and numerous film presentations.
“We like to explain the Asian culture, not just through performances, but other means as well,” Wood said. “Our show is our main event, but by no means our only event. Cultural enrichment programs are our companion programs – they add to the experience of the show.”
To improve one’s understanding and appreciation of “Miss Saigon,” which is sung in its entirety, Mason created a comprehensive and detailed timeline of the Vietnam War, along with a glossary for the performance. It will be posted on the company’s website or available to view in the online version of this story at TheUnion.com/entertainment.
Whether or not theatregoers do their homework or take part in the extracurricular activities, they’re sure to enjoy the performance, which was at one time daunting to Woods and Lisa Moon, president of CATS. The two talked about it for some time and there were many naysayers. It was, in fact, the group’s first real operatic production. They’d done musicals before, but never a full opera. It was a compelling story and they wanted to tell it.
The three leads they found were equally excited to tell it. Jared Lee (The Engineer) from Elk Grove, David Holmes (Chris) from Meadow Vista, and April Lam (Kim) from San Jose, had never played the parts that for them were lifelong dreams.
Lee has taken part in three productions of “Miss Saigon,” but this will be his first as The Engineer. He will also share the stage with his daughter, who is playing Tam. For Holmes, it was the first professional production he saw back when he was 18. He’s been performing in the Sacramento area for 20 years.
Lam had played Mimi in another production and was an understudy for Kim. When a friend told her about the opening for Kim, she jumped at the chance and headed to Nevada City.
“She’s been my dream role for years. I’m very excited,” Lam said.
All three, as well as Mason, agree that CATS is wonderful company to work with, extremely hardworking and committed to quality.
“CATS has been a labor love for the past 20 years,” Wood said. “Through our annual productions and cultural enrichment programs, it’s been a privilege to contribute to the community.”
Miss Saigon runs through May 10 at Nevada Theatre, with performances Thursday through Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees. For more information, or tickets, go to www.catsweb.org. Tickets are also available at BriarPatch Co-op and the Book Seller.
The April 18 performance is a benefit for the Friends of the Nevada County Libraries. Tickets to the benefit may be purchased by calling 530-265-1407 or by going to any western Nevada County branch.
Freelance writer Katrina Paz lives in Grass Valley.