Filipino ‘Engineer’ a ‘sleazier’ smash hit in Miss Saigon revival in London
(Editor’s Note: The author originated the titular role in the Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil all-time hit “Miss Saigon,” performing it in different productions throughout a span of more than 10 years from 1989 and, in the process, winning a Laurence Olivier Award in 1990 and a Tony Award in 1991, among other distinctions.)
The heat is on in “(Miss) Saigon” and the critics have spoken: Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer in the hit musical’s revival production in London’s West End is “the show’s standout, stealing every scene his Engineer comes close to.” This is the verdict from the premier theater website Broadway World UK, which hails the Filipino-American actor for “bringing freshness and exuberance to a role he knows so very well.”
From The Daily Mail, one of Britain’s largest-circulated tabloids: “[Briones] hits the mark with a delivery of acid satire.” The Telegraph, a daily morning broadsheet, finds him “memorably seedy.” Multiplatform The Guardian compares his portrayal to Jonathan Pryce’s original: “An even grubbier, sleazier figure who is the victim of both his background and pathetic fantasies.”
The venerable New York Times sees him as “a diminutive presence with a slithery, sleazy command that brings home the sardonic second-act showstopper, ‘The American Dream.’” (He is about 1.55 meters tall; the original Engineer, Welsh actor Pryce, stands 1.83 meters.)
Jon Jon’s current engagement plays to packed houses (1,714 seats) at the Prince Edward Theater on Old Compton Street eight times a week. Each performance is punctuated with a standing ovation. It never gets old, he swears. “People make plans to watch, take the time, pay for their tickets (from £27.50 to £67.50, or about $47 to $114) with hard-earned money and then show appreciation in such a wonderful way. The least we can do is tell this story every single time like it is brand new.”
Top billing, last bow
To Jon Jon, 48, “Miss Saigon” isn’t just any story. He was part of the ensemble in the original West End production that opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in September 1989. Being cast as The Engineer in this revival is therefore nothing less than a full-circle feat, jacked up quite a few notches: Now he’s top-billed, and he takes the last bow.
“This time around, [I am] front and center, and back where it all started for me, the West End,” Jon Jon points out. Prior to that “start,” he had no major credits in Manila. (He was one of the assistants during the Philippine auditions and remembers me waiting in line to be “seen.”)
As in the original production, Filipino actors are in the current cast: Eva Maria Noblezada (Kim), Rachelle Ann Go (Gigi), Julia Abueva and Tanya Manalang (Kim alternates) Christian Rey Marbella (Thuy) and Ariel Reonal (Club owner/Thuy understudy).
Jon Jon is “very impressed” by his compatriots. “It is amazing, the caliber of talent that Cameron (Mackintosh, producer) found,” he says. “They are all fun to work with as well. They know the show’s history from 25 years ago and are eager to write their own stories from this experience.” He notes that Rachelle Ann, current hometown hero, “brings so much to her character.” He is “proud of how she handles herself in the role and here in London.”
Major déjà vu
At curtain call for their first preview on May 3, Jon Jon experienced a major déjà vu. He recounts a reception much like the one accorded the original production: “The crowd was on its feet even before anyone came out to take a bow. Our director, Laurence (Connor), told me [backstage] that the energy outside was crazy and like… opening night! Actually, even before the show started, the live announcement welcoming the audience was greeted by cheering and screaming, which set the tone for the evening. It was like a rock concert. London definitely missed this show!”
The way he describes the new production, it is not your mama’s “Miss Saigon.” Rather, it echoes “Platoon,” “The Deer Hunter,” “The Killing Fields”—classic war movies. “The set is brought closer to the audience to make it more intimate, which also makes the intentions clearer and sharper,” Jon Jon says. “A good way to describe it would be, in film speak, a tight shot. It is grittier because the music, tempo, lighting, etc., have been tweaked, rendering my performance more desperate, relentless and hungry. I carry a switchblade throughout the show. A moment was added in the song ‘If You Want to Die in Bed’ where I kill someone. These things contribute to create this darker version.”
Meeting his wife in Germany
Performing in quite a few productions of “Miss Saigon” over the last 25 years yielded not just an eventful career but a circumstance that changed his life. During his Stuttgart (Germany) stint, he met singer/actress Megan Johnson from Encino, California, who would be his wife. They married in 1996 and now have two children, Isa and Teo, young working actors themselves.
Jon Jon describes his household in Los Angeles, California, as busy, funny, sometimes filled with drama. “Like a movie,” he says. “There’s suspense, as well, when waiting for word on a job for one of us. It’s crazy. There is constant shuttling to and from auditions, classes, jobs, etc. Sometimes, we feel like we spend all our days in the car.” Isa is also studying at a performing arts high school. Teo, who is home-schooled, has appeared in the hit TV shows “Modern Family,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Pretty Little Liars.”
Right now, the kids’ careers are on a short hiatus, as the whole family is in London for the entire summer. Isa, now a teenager, was born there. Teo was born in Oxford. Their father, as an actor, has lived in quite a few London neighborhoods over the years; he’s currently in Fitzrovia, close to Regents Park.
Jon Jon has a second household, of course—his “Saigon” family. “We support one another—Filipinos or not,” he says. “That is really important in theater, to always have each other’s backs.” Rachelle Ann singles him out as the one who has her back “all the time, from the very start.”
Since preview night, Jon Jon’s star has been steadily rising. He plays down the fact that audience members wait for him at the stage door after every show. He says they wait for the entire cast, especially Eva and Alistair (Brammer, who plays Kim’s lover Chris), Rachelle Ann and Hugh Maynard, who plays Chris’ buddy John.
However, he admits, “I have been stopped on the street a few times and in a restaurant a couple of times. It takes getting used to; I’m just so glad that people like the show so much, they feel the need to tell me in person.”
Jonathan Pryce watched on opening night, May 21. After the show, Jon Jon said he was “dragged” to where Pryce was dining but the conversation was dominated by a photographer asking if the Welsh star had “any notes” on the revival.
“It would have been really nice to have spoken with him,” said Jon Jon. Producer Cameron Mackintosh had to deliver the message: Pryce was “impressed.”
Jon Jon has lived mostly abroad for his stage, TV and film work, and he misses the homeland. Because his family and many friends reside in the Philippines, he wishes to return home more often. “It is important to me that my kids know their Filipino family and heritage.”
He performed in the Manila production of “Miss Saigon” in 1999. (We got to play opposite each other a few times then. I found that his Engineer was laser-focused, intense, sleazy, ambitious, very scary and exciting to play off of.)
He offers very simple pieces of advice for actors like himself: “Understand your character. Figure out what he wants, what is preventing him from getting it and what he does to deal with that. When auditioning, just be yourself, don’t try to guess what the casting directors, producer and whoever else is in the room want. Show them [instead] who you are and what you can bring to the role. Never audition to book the role; show up to perform. And have fun!”
Which is what he seems to be doing right now, the time of his life. Bravo!
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