CATS celebrates 20 years with production of ‘Miss Saigon’ |

CATS celebrates 20 years with production of ‘Miss Saigon’

Katrina Paz
Special to Prospector

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."

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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

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 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.

Vietnam War Timeline and Miss Saigon Glossary

By Jeffrey Mason and Hock Tjoa

Historic Facts:

European military action in Vietnam began in the late eighteenth century with minor conflicts involving the French, who had come as Catholic missionaries. In 1887, France consolidated its power in Vietnam with a colony known as French Indochina.

1946 – An eight-year war began between French forces and the Viet Minh, or Vietnam Independence League, which later became the government of North Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh – The Marxist revolutionary who led the Vietnamese nationalist movement and served as president of North Vietnam from 1945 until his death in 1969. He was a legend among his people as a leader and fighter against the French.

1954 — Under the terms of the Geneva Accords, France agreed to withdraw its troops, while the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (aka North Vietnam) agreed to pull back north of the seventeenth parallel, a new boundary that “temporarily” divided the country in anticipation of elections that would reunite the nation in 1956. Neither the State of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam) nor the United States signed the covenant, but President Eisenhower reluctantly agreed not to interfere with its implementation.

1955 — In a fraudulent referendum, Ngo Dinh Diem was elected President of the new Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam), and he subsequently refused to hold the elections promised in the Geneva Accords.

1961-1963—United States supplied South Vietnam with increased aid, equipment, and advisers, reaching 15,000 in American military personnel by December 1963 and $500 million in aid for 1963 alone.

1964 – North Vietnamese patrol boats repeatedly attacked the American destroyer USS Maddox. Congress passed a resolution known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing President Johnson to use conventional military forces in aid of other SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) nations, all without a formal declaration of war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution marked the beginning of American direct military involvement in Vietnam and the ensuing escalation.

1965 — In response to continued attacks on American installations, President Johnson increased bombing in North Vietnam, known as Operation Rolling Thunder, authorized on February 13, and initiated on March 2, to last through November 1, 1968. The first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam on March 8. By December, American troops reached nearly 200,000.

1966-1967 – Bombing of North Vietnam continued. American troops reached nearly 500,000 by the end of 1967. Sustained bombing and fighting destroyed much of Vietnam, creating poor and homeless communities. Many fled to the cities, where, as shown in the first act of Miss Saigon, it was not uncommon for women to enter prostitution.

1969 —In June, President Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and subsequently began withdrawing American troops from Vietnam. In September, Ho Chi Minh died in Hanoi. In the United States, the burgeoning anti-war movement led to the National Moratorium on October 15, when hundreds of thousands of people around the country refused to go to work or to school as a gesture of protest.

1972 – The North initiated a major offensive on March 30, crossing the Demilitarized Zone and advanced toward Hue. With the support of American bombers, the South defended the city and pushed back the North Vietnamese troops, but the North attacked again, taking Dong Ha on April 29 and Quang Tri on May 1. The most notable “new” bombing campaign by the Americans was Operation Linebacker, which lasted twelve days in late December and involved strategic strikes against North Vietnamese military installations in and near Hanoi and Haiphong.

1973 – After nearly two years of negotiations, many held in secret, cease-fire agreements between the United States (with Henry Kissinger as the U.S. negotiator) and the North Vietnam government were signed in Paris on January 27. The last American combat troops left Vietnam on March 29, leaving military advisors and Marines to protect U.S. installations, including the embassy.

April 30, 1975 – Communist forces took over Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, and changed the name to “Ho Chi Minh City.” Helicopters transported over a thousand Americans and nearly six thousand out of Saigon, leaving behind thousands of Vietnamese who had supported the American involvement.

November 13, 1982 – Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC, honoring over 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in Vietnam.


Paper Tiger – This translation of a Chinese phrase refers to anything that seems as threatening as a tiger but turns out to be weak or inconsequential; Mao Tse-Tung referred to the United States as a “paper tiger” as early as 1956.

Vietcong – The organization of South Vietnamese guerillas that opposed the government of South Vietnam. The American soldiers’ nickname for the Vietcong was “the V.C.”

Bangkok – The capital of Thailand; it was the destination for many refugees from Vietnam, traveling by land from the borders and by boat across the dangerous bay of Mekong.

Re-education – Over a million South Vietnamese people were put in prison camps after the fall of Saigon to “re-educate” them in Communist doctrine. “Re-education” often involved torture and brainwashing. The Engineer in Miss Saigon spent three years in a re-education camp before finding Kim again.

Bui Doi – A phrase translated as “dust of life” that has referred, at various times, to rural vagrants who sought refuge in cities or to street children who sometimes formed gangs. The authors of Miss Saigon borrowed and repurposed the phrase to denote the unwanted, scorned children of Vietnamese women and American soldiers.

Boat People – Large-scale emigration from Vietnam by boat began in 1978. Although the boats were often small crafts from Thailand, they headed into open waters in hopes of reaching South Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia.

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