BWW Interview: Matthew Overberg of MISS SAIGON at Orpheum Theatre
It was so fascinating speaking with Matthew Overberg, ensemble member and language consultant for MISS SAIGON, running May 28-June 2 at the Orpheum Theatre in Omaha. Matthew has a special insight and expertise not only in theatre, but in Vietnamese language and culture. He has an amazing tale to tell about his own parents escaping Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.
Matthew, can you tell me about your background? I understand from your bio that you are Vietnamese Australian.
I was born in Australia. My father traveled by foot, bus, ferry, bike, horseback to escape Vietnam. He went to Thailand via Cambodia seeking refuge, got turned away and had to go back to Vietnam. That was a very dangerous trip. He risked his life. He left his whole family behind. Eventually, he found refuge in Malaysia and in time ended up in Australia.
My mum, age 12 at the time, travelled in a small boat with approximately sixty people for almost two months at sea. They were rejected by Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia before being accepted in Australia. It was very dangerous as well. It was quite a miracle that they met and also a miracle that they were able to start life in Australia for their future children. This was after the fall of Saigon.
I came over to the US almost three years ago because I really wanted to perform, and there's much more opportunity for that here. I've always had a big fascination with America, especially New York City, ever since I was a kid. I'm based in New York.
Did you grow up speaking Vietnamese in your home?
Yes, it's my first language.
And now you are the language consultant for MISS SAIGON in addition to being a member of the ensemble. What exactly is your role as language consultant?
There are moments in the show where the cast are asked to improvise and adlib. We [Jackie Nguyen and I] have been teaching phrases and teaching bits and pieces of Vietnamese to the whole cast, to equip them with vocabulary and words to use in the show, especially when there are highlighted moments for the ensemble. It also adds a layer of depth to background textures. It's a real language, a real country, a real culture and nowadays grunts and random noise-making just doesn't cut it. If you hear something foreign to your ears in the show, they are speaking Vietnamese.
And as part of the ensemble, do you have specific parts that you play or are you a swing?
I have a set track, so I perform in the same role every show. I'm the only one with a shaved head, though, so you can easily identify me!
What's your background in the theatre?
After graduating from University, I was cast in the Australian production of THE KING AND I. That was a fun time and huge learning experience, especially being fresh out of University. I did that for almost a year. Then I worked on a cruise ship as a dancer. When I got to America, I was fortunate enough to be a swing in the touring cast of CABARET, which was really a great challenge and unique show to be apart of. I then went straight from CABARET to MISS SAIGON.
So are you primarily a dancer? I noted that you have a BFA in Dance from Australia's Queensland University of Technology.
Yes, my focus in University was dance. I started dancing when I was 16 and went on to major in it; I actually had to pick between Music or Dance as my major. Music has been a huge part of my life. I play the violin, and I've been singing for a number of years.
I also read that you just picked up the harp. How many instruments can you play?
Oh my goodness...um. Confidently, I would say six. But I can hold a tune on a lot more. I actually just got home from watching a dress rehearsal of the Dallas Symphony. I really love live music.
Are you a child prodigy since you play so many instruments?
Hilarious. I'm 27 now so I can't claim that I'm a child prodigy or if I ever even was haha. But, at one point as a young teenager I was extremely dedicated to my instruments.
Everyone in the cast of MISS SAIGON is multi-talented and awe-inspiring. A lot of the cast play instruments and write music. Everyone is so multi-faceted and generous and on top of that everyone can sing and dance and act. It's great to be a part of a cast like this. Everyone is a prodigy!
The original production made some casting choices that were criticized. They cast white people in the roles of Asians. Has that changed?
I think now they would never get away with that. They have been very good, very diligent with actor representation. The show demands a very large, very beautiful, extremely diverse cast that I am so proud to boast about. We have citizens of America, Canada, Korea, Japan, Australia and the Philippines. Beyond that, ethnicities in the cast include Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Malaysian, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Mexican, African-American and more. We're like one big crazy family.
I've been reading reviews on MISS SAIGON. Some of them have been pretty harsh. What do you have to say to those critics who deride the show for being sexist and racist, and say that the show has no relevance today?
That's a tricky question. As an Asian performing artist, I am glad to have the opportunity to tell such an important and relevant story. As Vietnamese person whose parents defected during the war, I am proud to get to bring a story similar to theirs to the spotlight, I owe them that glory. My parents saw MISS SAIGON and thoroughly enjoyed it, they were also glad that this story was being portrayed.
In regards to the sexism and racism, of course I agree there are valid points from all angles. The show is very confronting and controversial in that way. What's important is that these discussions are being had in academic and intelligent spaces. There's always space for raising awareness and I'm so glad it's happening.
There are scenes in the show that are more important with a stronger message to be gained. With crazy things happening in all over the world right now, I think the show makes a valid comment on political climate in war torn countries where people don't have the right to live freely. A woman makes sacrifices for her child. There are a lot of things that should be discussed.
In saying that, we work our hardest to provide cultural accuracy in this show. Jackie and I have coached everyone in actual Vietnamese language. People aren't just making noises that sound Vietnamese or Asian, because that would be terribly ignorant. We've also made minor adjustments to intricacies involving body language and gestures to help with accuracy too. A lot of these scenes weren't just fabricated from imagination, but actually informed by historical events.
What is the most important message to take away from the show?
I think the most important thing for me, that I take away from the show, if you take a step back from the story line-the narrative- the theme and the situation are still playing out in the world today. In the Middle East, in Mexico, in America, all over the world: we're going through it right now. People need to Take That away from the show rather than a woman in love with a man. They also need to realize that it's a love story, but not just between a man and a woman. It's also between a woman and her child. A woman and her country. The show that we're in now is much grittier and much more realistic. People are actually speaking Vietnamese, we've tried to make it as culturally accurate as we can. It's just epic.
Do they still have the helicopter in MISS SAIGON?
Yes, I can't wait for you to see it! It's pretty impressive.
And side note: Did you know that the third most spoken language in Omaha is Vietnamese?
Really!? I didn't know that. That's incredible. I need to go check out the food and hunt for the best Pho!
Photo credit: Eli Warren