If the Miss Saigon set looks vaguely familiar, it’s because Brian Kite, producing artistic director of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, rented it from nearby Fullerton Civic Light Opera, which last mounted the production in 2008. The difference, Kite says, comes from his omitting some pieces and noticeably changing the lighting pattern.
The other enhancement in this production, which marks La Mirada’s 35th anniversary, is his drafting of Donna Parsons, who stage managed the ’08 production about 10 miles away. “We were lucky to get her. She’s been able to guide us on how things moved originally and how the crew should be set up.”
While the ubiquitous car and helicopter remain part of the production in a season that marks La Mirada’s 35th anniversary, Kite focused on the cast and the story. “This is a show about people in small stories in massive circumstances, with the world upon them. That’s what I’m trying to get across, the importance of the small, personal, human story.”
Using age-appropriate yet experienced actors was important to Kite. “These actors are feeling the same passion and fear that young people currently going off to war may feel. War is mostly a young person’s game. Or, at least, we force it upon the young.”
He banks on their wide-eyed naiveté to help the audience focus more on the small stories than the bright lights and effects. “Even if you’ve seen Miss Saigon, as many have, when you hear the lyrics and get past the spectacle, the smaller moments pop. It’s the classic love story of our time. Any time you can explore human experience like that, it’s fresh.”
During a recent rehearsal, Kite leads Jacqueline Nguyen (Kim) and Kevin Odekirk (Chris) through some of the lyrics with musical director John Glaudini. “Let’s read it,” he tells them. It sounds like poetry as they recite their lines sans music. “Think about what you want,” he reminds them. “Why is this moment important? Let’s do it again.” And again.
Kite says the cast spent time early on reviewing the history of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon. “We had to spend time thinking and talking through that to see how true the story is [to the actors]. The fall of Saigon was all about helicopters. The planned evacuations couldn’t happen because the air strips had been destroyed. That left a lot of people abandoned.”
And it leaves Nguyen looking for how to evoke Kim’s desperation. Kite says, “It’s a search for hope in a world that seems to have none. Kim goes on a journey where she realizes she has to make her hope happen; she can’t wait for it. She forces it by following the desperate circumstances of her heart. It’s the power of love and connection that two people can feel in the midst of chaos.”
The musical, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. The tale of a doomed romance may be unfamiliar turf to actors in their early to mid-20s, which could result in a chasm between the written words and the young actors’ understanding of them. Kite thinks not. “My style is about being in the moment, getting what you want and being specific. So the core of what they want and what the writers intended is very pure. Needing and grabbing and holding. That’s visceral.”
And that, he believes, makes it easy for his actors to relate. They trace the paths some Americans and Vietnamese took upon the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, on April 30, 1975. “You can’t act that anyways,” Kite says. “So it’s nice to know and understand the stakes. But what you can act is the need, the want and what the heart desires.”
Aiding the actors is a nine-piece orchestra, with six additional singers in the pit.
That La Mirada Theatre is celebrating its 35th season tells Kite that the arts, particularly live theatrical performance, survived the recession. “I give 100 percent of the credit to [producers] Tom McCoy and Cathy Rigby. They started as tour producers and it’s what they’re good at.”
The city contracts with McCoy Rigby Entertainment to produce the season. The couple is now halfway through its fourth five-year contract.
The producers, armed with Tony nominations (Peter Pan, starring Rigby, a former Olympic gymnast) Emmy, Garland and Ovation wins, among others, recently announced a detour from their typical season. Kite says, “We’re doing Jekyll & Hyde with Deborah Cox and Constantine Maroulis. It’s the first time we’ll knowingly get a premiere before a show goes to Broadway. Peter Pan went, but we didn’t know that at the time. We’re good at launching big musicals and big shows but this is unique and I’d love to have more of this.”
Staging another pre-Broadway premiere, with all its marketing advantages, he says, is far more likely than mounting a work that doesn’t yet have Broadway plans. “We’ve done some of that, but it’s risky,” he says, pointing to the successful Daddy Long Legs, the two-actor musical which opened at the Rubicon Theatre in 2009 and which has subsequently traveled to many other theaters, including La Mirada in November 2010, without reaching Broadway.
“The bottom line is that we have to sell 26,000 tickets every time we do a show. The stakes are high and I still feel the fear of the economy,” making Kite loath to put La Mirada’s success to the test.
“There are others around us who do original works really well. In the LA theater landscape there are many 99-seat theaters and smaller ones that can spend weeks developing something. Our rehearsal period is two-and-a-half weeks. We just can’t do that. We want to stay in our niche and do what we do well.”
The shortened rehearsal period contrasts sharply to what Kite experienced coming out ofÂ college. He was among several fellow graduates who formed Buffalo Nights Theatre Company. “It’s so stereotypical, forming a theater company out of college, but it’s still in existence. We spent a good 10 years together producing work on our own as the resident company at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica. Working in intimate theater with college buds is great because, for one thing, you can take the experience to a deeper level with a longer rehearsal period, compared to what we have here.”
Now, as a city employee, “the strangest theater job I’ve ever had,” Kite answers to the city manager and the city council. “The city of La Mirada has kept a tremendous commitment to this theater, particularly for a city of just over 50,000 people. They support this major performing arts center and have stood by it in tough times. Now we’re in better times.”
Ticket sales and other earned income, he says, account for 85 to 95 percent of the theater’s $4 million budget. Donations and the city subsidize the rest. “We share city services. Finance handles our money. City gardeners keep the place looking great.” Yet some long term capital improvement projects had to be deferred when the recession hit in 2008.
Kite works with staff to set ticket prices, which then go before the city council for approval. His primary goal, he says, is remaining part of the “cultural conversation of our community and to put on shows that matter.”
He’ll do that this coming year with Brian Yorkey’s and Tom Kitt’s Next to Normal, which won the Tony Awards in 2009 for best score and best orchestrations and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. “I love that we’re doing this show because it addresses family values and how families connect. It helps us explore and understand who we are.” The show was last seen in Los Angeles in late 2010 at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Kite majored in theater studies at UCLA, graduating in 1991, and returned to Westwood for his masters degree in directing, achieving that in 2004. He now teaches there. He’s also the current chairman of the board of governors of LA STAGE Alliance, which publishes LA STAGE Times.
“I’ve always had a business background — my family is all in business and I have an interest in public policy.” Kite is an elected member of his neighborhood council, in the South Robertson neighborhood in Los Angeles. “I wanted to get my feet wet, see what I think about serving in a political position, see if I can make a difference and do something else that matters.”
While he says he has loved directing at La Mirada for the past eight years, he knows nothing lasts forever. When pressed with the question, he could see himself one day in politics. “But I don’t try to imagine where I’ll be in 10 years because, when I do, I find myself in unimaginable places.”
If he were to script his immediate future, he would alternate between directing straight plays and musicals. “After I do a musical I think ‘that was great fun’ and then I long for a quieter rehearsal room. So then I do a straight play and wind up wondering where my choreographer and my music director are! I just want to keep following my path and my passions.”
Miss Saigon, produced by McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Opens Saturday. Wed-Thur 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through May 6. La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. www.lamiradatheate.com. 562-944-9801 or 714-994-6310.
***All Miss Saigon production photos by Michael Lamont