Theater preview: Suburban theater vets return to Chicago in 'Miss Saigon' tour
Before and after the arrival of the infamous onstage helicopter, suburban theater fans should be able to spot a few locals connected to the new national tour of "Miss Saigon."
The controversial 1989 musical blockbuster, which reset and updated the operatic story of "Madame Butterfly" to the Vietnam War era, lands in Chicago for a four-week run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
Onstage is Chicago-based actress Christine Bunuan, who makes her professional touring debut in the supporting role of the bar girl Gigi. Also in the ensemble is Aurora native Alexander Aguilar, who plays roles ranging from an American soldier to a Bangkok tourist.
Behind the scenes is composer/lyricist/actor Michael Mahler. The Naperville native is listed in the credits as providing "additional lyrics" to the original score by Frenchmen Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil ("Les Miserables"), along with the original English-language lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. ("Baby," "Closer Than Ever").
Mahler, currently starring in the regional premiere of "Holiday Inn" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, came to the attention of Schönberg and Boublil when he worked on an English translation of their 1970s rock opera "La Révolution Française." Mahler himself was surprised when he was asked to collaborate with the "Miss Saigon" creators for a major 2014 London revival.
"They wanted a fresh set of eyes," said Mahler back in 2015. "American attitudes about the show have shifted and they wanted to honor that by bringing to it a more modern sensibility."
Bunuan co-starred opposite Mahler at the Marriott in last year's regional premiere of "Honeymoon in Vegas." Since original "Miss Saigon" star Lea Salonga was an inspiration for Bunuan to pursue a career as a singer and actress, she quizzed Mahler on his involvement.
"I remember him telling his story and just wishing that I could be a fly on the wall to watch that process," said Bunuan, adding that this was long before she learned of auditions for the "Miss Saigon" tour.
Bunuan got to work with some of the musical's creators during rehearsals.
"For me it was more about the storytelling in what Claude-Michel Schönberg had envisioned for this character, along with Laurence Connor, our director," Bunuan said.
Aguilar knew of Mahler and was able to flaunt that fact when in 2017 he was cast in "Miss Saigon" on Broadway as a replacement "swing" understudying 23 different roles.
"It was like being a 'theater fireman.' You wait in the dressing room and at any point you go on -- right before the show starts or sometimes in the middle of a show," Aguilar said. "The tour has been a little bit more of a relaxing experience since I have my own part in the ensemble."
Both Bunuan and Aguilar are eager to return to Chicago with "Miss Saigon" -- not only to reunite with friends and family, but also to play Chicago's Broadway-sized Cadillac Palace Theatre for the first time.
"All these people know how epic 'Miss Saigon' is, and its importance in my life -- it's what started everything for me (as a performer)," Bunuan said. "To share a story like this on one of those Loop stages is pretty incredible."
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Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Shows: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also Nov. 18; no show Nov. 22), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also Wednesdays starting Nov. 21 and on Nov. 23); runs Wednesday, Nov. 14, through Sunday, Dec. 8