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Grasan Kingsberry: A Man Called to Dream, Create, & Love

Nicole

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Photo credit: Daniel Robinson 

I sat down with Broadway performance artist Grasan Kingsberry to find out just what the key to his success and longevity on Broadway is. 10 Broadway credits to his name including Motown the Musical, Catch Me If You Can, The Color Purple, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Aida and one of a very small handful (he makes the fifth) of Broadway artists to ever, and I mean ever, reprise a role that they originally created, Grasan Kingsberry has set himself apart with great distinction. I went looking for just what his recipe might be, just what WAS his special ingredient?  I expected the usual litany of hard work, dedication, and focus, but instead I found a man who has attained so much more than commercial success. He has a purpose and truly as the old folks say a calling. Kingsberry’s focus is on so much more than the next show, accolades or fame. He has turned being different into making a difference both in himself and through his art.

Kingsberry has always been different. Growing up as a kid with a dream in Charlotte, North Carolina, he had long been preparing for the stage. As a child, he fell in love with music and found himself picking through tunes by ear. By the time he was in high school, he had made his way into Northwest School of the Arts and also had been a stellar athlete throughout his matriculation through secondary school. Kingsberry spent his time at Northwest studying dance, music theory, musical theater, voice, piano, and acting.

Deciding that performance art was going to be his focus, he moved away from being an athlete, replacing that love of playing with becoming a super fan of the Carolina Panthers. But music and dance were calling him and his next stop would be at Julliard. He graduated from Julliard with a BFA and role in Broadway’s Aida. The tone had been set and Kingsberry was ready.

Today finds Kingsberry still making history. He is currently performing in the revival of The Color Purple. This is noteworthy because it’s such a rare occurrence that an actor reprises an original role. As an African American male his accomplishments are somehow brighter, somehow more inspiring simply because of his ability to stand out in what has always traditionally been “the Great White Way”.  But talent as sumptuous as Kingsberry defies boundaries and heralds a new day where African American performers are more and more frequently receiving their just recognition for their contributions to the arts. Kingsberry has been a two-time recipient of the coveted gypsy robe; he received the first during On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and receiving the second on opening night of the revival of The Color Purple. Amazing enough he received his second robe four years and a day apart. “Timing is everything,” he says with the warmest of chuckles. Whatever Kingsberry puts his talent to just seems meant to be.

These synergistic themes of timing, mindfulness and intentional thinking pepper our conversation. It underscores Kingsberry’s deeply spiritual musings and convictions. Kingsberry is a man who has put a lot of thought into his purpose and his spiritual beliefs. Beliefs that he says became solidified during his very first run of The Color Purple and continue into the revival ten years later.

“This piece is really special to me. It was special to me ten years ago and it rings even more true to me now; in terms of a lot of things that I believe and things that have changed my heart from this show. Being a part of this show again just reconfirms my belief and my faith that you are where you are supposed to be. This show changed my life. The lyric content, the subject matter, the story… it raised questions of faith and self-love and finding joy through pain.”

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As he circles around to breathe life into the revival, I ask him how the two shows are different. Kingsberry shares that the current revival is sharply pared down compared to the original. There are 17 actors on stage and 3 swings and this time, no choreographer. In fact, there is only one set piece and chairs that are used as props. Kingsberry doesn’t discount the previous lavish set replete with 30 actors. He says,

“I think we needed that production to know what this production was going to be, we needed the original to come to this, to what we have now. We approach it like a play. Things really move at the pace a traditional Broadway play would. And that’s how I approach it as an actor, too.”

I asked Kingsberry what else was different in his approach to his character.

“So to do it ten years later with ten years of life experience, ten years of career experience, I get to apply those things that I have learned and give new life to this character and new life to this show. I have the unique position of having been in both shows so I can apply the things I have learned that I didn’t apply to this one. I had to approach it in a new way.”

For the audience, particularly those who have seen both productions the intent is to focus on Celie. The play has an intimate feel and there is no doubt there is an element of God in the show. The relationships between the characters, the emotional content are all focal points in the revival of a show that has a storyline that spans forty years. The emphasis in this production is a desire to trust the audience to imagine what they needed to and to get rid of the superfluous to hone in on what is truly an awe-inspiring story. According to Kingsberry, this approach is effective. He adds,

“Theater is a world of imagination and we don’t need to be too literal because we have to trust the audience will understand what’s going on. We as actors have to make sure we do our job and understanding the intention behind the story.”

Kingsberry says that in the revival, audiences have been able to get closer to the characters and the storyline. Being able to absorb more of the emotional elements sans a fancy set allows them to really hear the story and it hits them harder. It’s a spiritual experience that Kingsberry shares.

“What opened my spiritual door, so to speak, was me asking questions. Once I got the show ten years ago, with Oprah coming on board, with just all the goodness surrounding the show, I just kept asking the question, why me? God, why me? What have I done to receive all of these amazing blessings and beautiful things? The more I asked that and the more I sat still with that, answers began to reveal themselves to me. So, it deepened my spiritual practice and thusly I had an awakening. Because of the show.”

And we are back to this idea of having a sense of worship and understanding of the true nature of God. Kingsberry cites listening to the lyrics Shug sings to Celie about God being inside of each of us. This was a poignantly different picture of the God of Kingsberry’s childhood who was often portrayed as an overbearing, distant deity somewhere off in the sky. The simple message of God and love has had a profound effect on the way Kingsberry views God. He now says that we are the essence of God and that our work is to glorify the creations of God, the beauty of God and the love of God.

“It was truly this show that broadened my spiritual awakening… You do this eight times a week and you really start to believe what you are saying, to really take in what you are saying and naturally it manifested into me having a really deepened spiritual practice now. What I do on stage is all of God’s work.”

Speaking with Kingsberry is much like sitting by a small relaxing brook with an old friend, far away from the bright lights and buzz of the big city. His intelligence, humility, and deep spirituality stand in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle that defines the life of a Broadway entertainer.  Kingsberry has managed to forego the ego and bravado and his humanity shines through powerfully in every word.

Grasan

Thematically, a pattern seems to present itself in his recent work. One of artistic activism that gently points to what he truly believes is the intersection of all of the societal ills. Prior to joining the cast (again) of The Color Purple, Kingsberry played Sam Cooke in a play called One Night in Miami. The story was about Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Cassius Clay and Jim Brown electing to forego a celebration after Clay wins the heavyweight championship. The four friends skip the pompous festivities and instead spend the evening together in a hotel in the heart of the Black neighborhood that Clay trained in for the bout. The play is an imagining of what happened during that night in 1964. I asked Kingsberry who would he spend his ‘One Night in Miami’ with and his answer was powerful, thoughtful and sentimental. Alice Walker whom he says he could talk with for hours, his reverend Dr. Michael Bernard Beckwith who is the Founder and Spiritual Director of the Agape International Spiritual Center and his own father. I can hear the strong emotion in his voice when he talks about what such a night might entail. When speaking about why he chose to include his father he gets a bit teary eyed.

“I would want him to experience it and I would also want to learn more from him and his upbringing. It would be a cool way for us to bond.”

Grasan Kingsberry is a history maker. There is no denying his success on Broadway but in truth, his real heroism comes from how he views the world and the importance of everyone in it. His loving approach to the work he does and his commitment to select thoughtful pieces communicate important  and complex ideas at a time where truthfully, he could focus on doing anything he wants. Grasan Kingsberry has a calling and we are definitely better for listening to what he has to say through his artistic expressions.

You can catch Kingsberry in the ensemble and as Adam/Buster on Broadway in The Color Purple. Meanwhile, we will be on the lookout for upcoming music projects and other performances showcasing his musical talent.

Nicole "Blackberri" Johnson is a freelance writer, stage/ film actress, activist and entrepreneur. Mom of three. Blackberri is also a notorious cape thief and unapologetic bacon lover. Follow on twitter @Blackberri

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A Must See

We Were There: Sojourners & Her Portmanteau

Jerrica White

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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Playwright, educator, opera singer, and Queen, Mfoniso Udofia has two plays running at New York Theatre Workshop. *pause* TWO PLAYS. In the SAME season!?!? *ends congratulatory gasp* Sojourners and Her Portmanteau are performed in repertory, as two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle.  Admittedly, before researching each show, I didn’t know the definition of either word; and in the spirit of keeping it consistent with the honesty, I didn’t like either play. I loved them.

Sojourners

Minimalism seems to be the name of the game these days.  I sat down to a completely black stage, sans a multimedia display lodged on the ceiling at a 45-degree angle.  Clutching my all white program and bobbing my head to the ‘70s pop rock pre-show music, I prepared my heart for the story of Sojourners, well at least that was the plan.  The stage begins to rotate and we meet Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Nigerian expatriates sojourning in Houston, Texas with the plan to start a family, earn their degrees, and go back to Nigeria until life happens.

Charming and handsome, Ukpong becomes defined by his leather jacket, shoulder work and shimmy which match the fascination and yearning for freedom that illuminates his eyes every time he talks of peace, protest, and Prince–all shaping his view of 1970s America, and consequently, the American Dream.  But does leather compensate for grit? Is a movement or vibe really a panacea for disappointment, aimlessness, and a need to find yourself?  Abasiama enters the play pregnant, purposed, and outfitted in pieces of Nigerian garb, grounded in duty showing a stark contrast to Ukpong who floats in desire.  What’s lost in your household is found elsewhere, and this is when we start to see, and root for, Abasiama’s transformation from timid to tenacious.

Enter Moxie (Lakisha May), a colorful prostitute turned protector and friend.  There is a mutual respect despite great differences between her and Abasiama, with their love for one another creating moments that make you believe in the beauty of humanity.  Enter Disciple (Chinaza Uche), another warm and determined hearted immigrant who has come to the United States to study, rounding out the timely additions of love, support, and security when Abasiama needed them the most.

Through and through this is Abasiama’s story and she glows.  Her kindness, her sisterhood, her strength, her worthiness, and the realization of her American Dream, guide her decisions—which is the catalyst behind the entire Ufot Cycle.

Her Portmanteau

Her “portmanteau”, or red suitcase, makes a return as 30 years have passed.  Abasiama now has two daughters, one raised in America and the other who has come from Nigeria to reconnect with her family.

This is a good moment to mention that each story is informed by the other, but can certainly stand alone on substance, content, and the amazing direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar.  The staging is exciting and deliberate, while minimal, putting the full focus on the tension and growth to be expected of a family reunited after a substantial amount of time and distance.

Chinasa Ogbuagu returns to the stage, this time as the American-born daughter, Adiagha Ufot, Adepero Oduye as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Ukpong and Abasiama’s daughter), and Jenny Jules as the mother, Abasiama Ufot.

Seated on a couch in Adiagha’s small New York Apartment, no amount of preparation readies your mind and spirit to form the words to make up for 30 years of life, connection, and memories missed.  We’re taken on a ride of resentment, hurt, love, and forgiveness, as the portmanteau is literally unpacked.  We watch the teeter-tottering between offense and defense as one sister tries to assimilate into American culture, and the other attempts, albeit stubbornly, to fall in formation in honoring a family she shares blood with, but little time or tangible history.

It’s powerful to see a story of history and continuing a legacy despite lost time, faulty promises, and difficult choices explored with an all-woman cast as far too often the idea of legacy is framed in patriarchy.  Jules admirably takes Abasiama through the fire to heal, to feel, and to fix her family.  The narrative allows us to empathize and understand the struggle that comes with upholding family values versus cultivating a space to achieve personal dreams and happiness.

Her Portmanteau (and Sojourners) is written in a way that finds your soul, gently massaging it with humor, while leaving it with very real questions.  I’ve never felt a greater need to binge read nine stories and simultaneously study the story of my own family tree. I left changed. I left wrapped in the strength of my mom and my mom’s- mom’s sacrifice.  I left pensive and with seeds of future forgiveness planted.  I left changed.

For capturing our hearts with wit and with truth.  For putting Black women at the center of a poignant narrative.  For unapologetically telling a story you haven’t seen told and telling it in the way you want it to be told.

We thank you Mfoniso.  We thank you.

Have you seen the #duetplays? Sound off in the comments below![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price: Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners & Her Portmanteau

Jerrica White

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Last winter, we reported on Sojourners by playwright Mfoniso Udofia, a new play about a Nigerian family who has come to America with the goal of earning a college education, starting a family, and returning to Nigeria. But not without the twists and turns that come along with every plan that seems straightforward.

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Thanks to New York Theatre Workshop, we get to relive this moment and continue the dialogue, decades later, with Her Portmanteau. Performed in repertory, these two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle, chronicle the triumphs and losses of the tenacious matriarch of a Nigerian family.

Ed Sylvanus Iskandar directs the two-part story in association with The Playwrights Realm, who premiered Sojourners last winter in a limited engagement world premiere production. Her Portmanteau also received the 2016 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award grant.

The cast includes Jenny JulesLakisha Michelle MayAdepero OduyeChinasa OgbuaguHubert Point-Du Jour, and Chinaza Uche.

As if that wasn’t enough to get excited about, we have an exclusive deal for our Broadway Black readers!

Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price!

Yes. That’s two shows for one price! The discount code BWYBLACK will take 50% off tickets to ANY performance(s) if purchased by May 15th! 

Go ahead and grab your tickets. We have ours!

Sojourners and Her Portmanteau plays at NYTW until June 4th.

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We Were There: Condola Rashad and Laurie Metcalf in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2

Jerrica White

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hnath

Part of the magic of live theatre is the suspension of reality achieved by sitting in a dark room with strangers as you’re transported to another world. You’re relieved of clearing your work email. You’re unchained from the claws of Sallie Mae. Your anxiety rests. Whether you come to the theatre to laugh, cry, learn, or heal—you come with a clear heart and mind, with the expectation to experience life through a lens that is not wholly yours. Lucas Hnath unapologetically roots us in reality in his play A Doll’s House, Part 2.

In his take on the life after Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece, A Doll’s House, Hnath poses the question of what happens when the rocket ship doesn’t take off. What happens when you’re stuck squarely in the confines of your own living room, and more hauntingly, within the raw thoughts of your mind?

15 years later and Nora returns to the very door she slammed, ending the life she shared with her husband and three kids. The question is why.

Walking down the orchestra aisles in John Golden Theatre felt like picking my seat on the floor in front of the television. I cosied myself into my seat and took in the set— the absence of objects that might reference or represent life, love, and family; just as my eyes landed on the enormous black door, the lights went down and the story began.

As a bit of reference, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is quite “woke,” if I do say so myself, covering topics like the role of women in a marriage, marriage expectations, and women’s rights. Hnath carries this torch into this new work, directed by Fun Home’s Sam Gold, and continues the conversation with poignance.

Laurie Metcalf has the intimidating task of bringing us into the mind of a woman who believes leaving her husband and children was the only way to activate her free will and identity, and she does so with great deliberation. Her Nora, the independent writer who has “made it,” but wants everyone to know the road wasn’t easy, is equal parts sarcastic, petty, touching, and unapologetic.

Photo Flash: First Look at Laurie Metcalf & Chris Cooper in A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2

Image: Brigitte Lacombe

The relatability in Hnath’s voice reverberates back and forth through the fast-paced dialogue. One minute you’re admiring the pleats and frills in Nora’s period-appropriate bodice, and the next you’re realizing, no matter how firm in your beliefs you stand, you empathize and connect with the well-balanced conversations carried out in modern vernacular, from the point of view of Norma, Torvald (played by a sincere Chris Cooper), and Anne Marie (Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell). And did I mention it’s laugh-out-audibly-loud funny?

Smart and endearing, Emmy (Condola Rashad) is a force against her estranged mother’s shameless manipulation. She is curiosity and a second chance, stained, but not damaged, with latent dismay. Although only in the show for one scene, Rashad’s delicate and redeeming grace will leave with you.

We don’t leave the room wondering who was right or who was wrong, rather whose voice is loudest in the back of our own heads as we walk—or not walk—in our truth. Life is complicated, and so is love. What did you take away from A Doll’s House, Part 2? Sound off in the comments below!

For tickets visit A Doll’s House, Part 2

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We Were There: Experience Deja Vu With Groundhog Day

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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groundhog day

What if you had to relive the same day over and over and over AND over again? Would you try something new every time to get a different outcome? Would you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to stop it? Now a two-time Olivier Award-winning new musical, Groundhog Day takes us on a whirlwind of adventure and misery through the eyes of a jaded weatherman forced to relive the same day, every day.

Funny enough, Groundhog Day is actually based on a film with the same title, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, and co-written by the show’s book writer Danny Rubin, about a weatherman caught in time and forced to relive the same day over and over and over again.

The concept seemingly feels like dangerous ground for a musical or a play, for that matter, as it forces the audience to watch the same moments over and over AND over again. Yet, somehow Groundhog Day manages to make what could be dangerous territory and turn it into a brilliant masterpiece of a musical. Largely in part to the catchy, fun music of the brilliant Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day makes deja vu seem kinda… cool.

Like the 1993 film, we meet our snarky protagonist Phil Connors (Andy Karl), a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual prediction of spring, as predicted by “Phil the Groundhog.” Naturally, Phil feels nothing but disdain for the ritual, Punxsutawney, and everyone who celebrates it, including his producer Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss), who he tries to woo while acting like a complete prick to her.

As the Groundhog Day version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Connors needs to deal with the consequences of his terrible, often hilarious, actions. Cue the deja vu, where he must relive the same day over and over.

While he initially spends his days in self-loathing, also encountering a massive groundhog mascot that hilariously hits him on the head as he passes by every day (and he totally deserves it too), he eventually comes to his senses and looks to turning over a new leaf as he tries to win Rita over.

But not before indulging in his share of booze, women, and crime. Repeatedly, of course.

Image result for groundhog day musicalKarl’s charm really comes to play here, as we can easily grow to hate Phil Connors. After all, he’s literally the worst. Yet somehow, watching him suffer this forever purgatory, you can’t help but both root for his liberation and also hope he’s stuck there for all eternity. Karl’s performance in the West End run of the show earned him an Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical last week.

It helps that Broadway newcomer Barrett Doss is an excellent match for Karl, their chemistry undeniable, like her talent. The role (and some of the songs) hint that she’s more than the boring, hard-working producer that we’re led to believe (largely in part to her interactions with Connors), but, underneath the surface, a quirkier soul searching for love. Doss plays that side of Rita with enormous heart and playful charm and wit.

The show also offers a few solos of other Punxsutawney citizens, who express their own joys, worries, and troubles of life in the small town.

Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, Rob Howell (set design), Hugh Vanstone (light design), Paul Kieve (illusions), and Peter Darling (choreography) prove that when the creative team shares the same vision, magic can happen, as evident in the first act’s amazing car-chase number with Phil, two idiot bar patrons, and the Punxsutawney police — one of the most fun sequences I’ve seen on Broadway since … everything in Matilda, which featured the same creative team behind this musical.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Groundhog Day, and, honestly, wouldn’t mind being stuck in a suburban purgatory with Phil and company again… and again.

Groundhog Day plays at the August Wilson Theatre.

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Billy Porter Returns to Huntington Theatre Company to Direct Topdog/Underdog

Malia West

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Billy Porter is back in the director’s chair! After a busy 2016, the Tony winner has reunited with the Huntington Theatre Company to bring Suzan-Lori Parks‘ Topdog/Underdog to the BU Theatre Stage. The play is as famous as the man calling the shots. With a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and incredible casts from both regional and Broadway productions, it’s a show you don’t want to miss.

Topdog/Underdog tells the story of two brothers and their reliance on each other to survive the world of gambling, relationships, poverty, and racism. Forced to live with his brother after his wife kicks him out, a former Three-card Monte player, aptly named Lincoln, ends up taking a job as a Lincoln impersonator while the younger brother, Booth, turns to shoplifting.

Matthew J. Harris returns to the Huntington stage as the hot-headed Booth, having recently played Antwoine at Huntington in Kirsten Greenidge‘s Milk Like Sugar. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Bring In Da’ Noise Bring in Da Funk tour) plays opposite Harris as Lincoln.

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The play premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in July of 2001, directed by George C. Wolfe, and starring Don Cheadle as Booth and Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln. It then opened on Broadway in April 2002, with Mos Def replacing Cheadle. One year later, the show’s cast transferred to London’s Royal Court Theatre.

While Billy Porter has given us Tony-winning performances and incredible albums, his return to Huntington brings a special kind of anticipation. His 2015 production of The Colored Museum shook audiences with its grit and unapologetic comedy. Though different in tone, the topical Topdog/Underdog is sure to ignite conversations about family and community. Porter’s attentiveness and exceptional talent have already been praised by local publications, and his keen sense of musicality and gift of communication will give new life to the Broadway classic.

The show currently runs through April 9th. For tickets and more information, visit Huntington Theatre.

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Nicholas Christopher Brings the Heat to Broadway in Miss Saigon

Montez Jennings

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The heat is on in Saigon as the Olivier and Tony-winning musical, featuring the epic onstage helicopter landing, returns to Broadway after a 16-year hiatus. Two decades ago, a visually stunning, tragic masterpiece graced London stages and then on Broadway in 2001. Written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, the same team that brought us Les Misérables, Miss Saigon celebrates its 25th anniversary, having been reworked in London for modern audiences since its original Broadway debut.

Based on the classic Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, the musical follows the budding romance between an American GI, Chris, and a Vietnamese bar-girl named Kim. There’s an instant attraction, yet with the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, Chris must flee the country, leaving Kim behind. In their three years apart, they build new lives, with Kim eagerly awaiting Chris’ return.

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Image: Matthew Murphy/The Publicity Office

This time around, Hamilton’s former George Washington, Nicholas Christopher, joins the cast as John. Broadway audiences have seen Christopher in Motown the Musical and Hamilton as well as the Off-Broadway productions of Lazarus, The Tempest, Whorl Inside a Loop, and Rent. Broadway veteran Katie Rose Clarke (Wicked, Allegiance, The Light in the Piazza) stars alongside him, with Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer, Eva Noblezada as Kim, Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi, Alistair Brammer, as Chris, and Devin IIaw as Thuy making their Broadway debuts.

Directed by Laurence Connor, the creative team also includes choreography by Bob Avian, costume design by Andreane Neofitou, lighting design by Bruno Poet, sound design by Mick Potter, and projection design by Luke Halls.

Previews began March 1st with an official March 23rd opening at the Broadway Theatre, incidentally the same theatre it debuted. The show will run through January 2018 before launching a North American tour.

For tickets, visit Miss Saigon.

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