BWW Review: VIETGONE at Studio Theatre - It's like a Magic Carpet Ride!!

It has been a while since I have attended a performance at the Studio Theatre but when I read a description of the new play VIETGONE I knew that this was a play that I had to see. And I am so glad I did.

Besides the hit musical MISS SAIGON, there have not been many shows that deal with Vietnam. I have seen shows that feature Asian actors. There was AUBERGINE (Everyman and Olney Theatre Center), the Broadway musical about Japanese detention camps ALLEGIANCE, a fable about Japan WHITE SNAKE (Baltimore Center Stage), M. BUTTERFLY (Everyman), SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS (Center Stage), and Broadway's PACIFIC OVERTURES...which all-star Asian actors. But here is the first time I've seen a play that brings the Vietnamese immigration experience home to the United States. And it is an eye-opener.

One immediately knows that you are in for something different when you arrive on the 4th floor of the Studio Theatre (known as Stage 4) and when you get off the elevator the hallways are filled with suitcases, and the restroom doors are labeled in Vietnamese. Then you enter to the intimate space and it's decked out with all sorts of lights (superb work by Heather T. Gilbert) like a New Year's Eve party. There's rock music playing.

There is a raised stage with microphones and musical instruments (yes this is a musical play). The bass drum has 1975 on it. The walls are decked out with souvenir signs from Fort Chaffee Arkansas, Oklahoma City, Arizona, California, and the Vietnamese flag. Tony Cisek did this clever set.

The band, The Vietgoners, take the stage: Jonathan Hawkins (Composer, Guitars, Banjo, Mandolin, Vocals), Keith Butler, Jr. (Composer, Drums, Percussion, Vocals), and Jeff Song (Composer, Music Director, Bass, Vocals). Andy Santaspago contributed as another Composer. They are loud and terrific. You will hear a combination of original funk-rock-punk-n-roll music. I wish there was more.

The prize-winning play relates how Vietnamese immigrants arrive in the United States in the 1970's after the fall of Saigon and how they adapt. Flashbacks give some history of their lives in Vietnam.

Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen (a screenwriter for Marvel Studios) tells the story of his parents' 1975 refugee camp romance that occurs in Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas. According to Studio Artistic Director David Muse, "This is Qui's sex comedy about his parents' courtship in an Arkansas refugee camp after they each left Vietnam. It's a madcap road-trip play about being strangers in a very strange land, about missing your old home and making a new one."

The playwright is portrayed by Jacob Yeh who opens the show. His parents are represented by the characters Quang (Regina Aquino) and Tong (Marc delaCruz). Tong was a helicopter pilot in the Vietnamese Army and trained for over a year in the United States. He relates that he fled Vietnam with three dozen immigrants, landed on an aircraft carrier, and intended to return to his homeland but was told his helicopter was pushed into the water to make way for Navy planes. Throughout the play, his desire is to return home to his wife and two children but is constantly reminded that with his military work he would face certain death or internment.

Because of her job at the U.S. Embassy, Quang got two tickets to leave Vietnam and she brings her mother, Huong, (Eileen Rivera) who adds a great deal of levity. She is hysterical. What a character. Quang leaves behind her brother and his fiancé.

As stated above...this is a "sex comedy" and Quang's desire for Tong is quite apparent and is consummated numerous times...in a comedic way! Delacruz as Tong is charming and lovable while Aquino is wonderful and sensual.

Joe Ngo plays Nahn, Tong's side-kick and in one of the hilarious chapters rides on the back of Tong's motorcycle (made of crutches and a handlebar with a headlight). Their "Easy Rider" journey to Los Angeles and then to Guam and then home is hysterical. Ngo nails his role.

One notices immediately that the Vietnamese speak not in broken English but in clear English with the Americans speaking in gibberish. An American says, "Yee-haw. Get'er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!"

There are no stereotypical depictions of the Vietnamese.

By the way, like in MISS SAIGON, VIETGONE has a helicopter, cleverly done with an umbrella.

On the whole Director Natsu Onoda Power does a brilliant job putting this together. But the ninja battle in Act II, clever as it is, goes on too long. Special kudos though to Fight Director Robb Hunter.

There are many connections that VIETGONE has with Baltimore Center Stage's WHITE SNAKE (Directed by Mary Zimmerman). Power directed, and Song was Composer and Music Director for it. Also, actors Rivera and Ngo were in the cast.

I've read VIETGONE is 'bold, vivid, and fresh." I couldn't say it better.

VIETGONE ends May 20, 2018. For tickets, call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.

Next up is The Remains, a world premiere by Ken Urban. It runs May 16 to June 17.

The "Taste of Studio", their annual summer celebration, is on Saturday, August 4. It will feature a behind-the-scenes look at the 40th Anniversary season with dishes and drinks from 30 restaurants, live music, and community performances. Visit www.studiotheatre.org/taste.

Next year's Main Series will feature IF I FORGET by Steven Levenson (Tony winner for book of the musical DEAR EVAN HANSEN), QUEEN OF BASEL by Hilary Bettis, CRY IT OUT by Molly Smith Metzler, and ADMISSIONS by Joshua Harmon. Studio X will present the University of Cape Town's Baxter Theatre Centre's THE FALL, KINGS by Sarah Burgess, and P.Y.G. OR THE MIS-EDUMCATION OF DORIAN BELLE.

For parking...Studio has a parking relationship with Washington Plaza Hotel at 10 Thomas Circle NW, just three blocks south. Patrons who park at the garage can purchase a $13 voucher at the theater.

cgshubow@gmail.com



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