Orlando performer Philip Ancheta will always remember the day he got the call that changed his life.
“I was with my friend Heather when they called and I just screamed at the top of my lungs ‘Heather, I’m going on tour,’” Ancheta recalls. “I just sat down and cried. It was such a surreal experience and she hugged me on the ground and we cried together.”
Born in Austin, Texas, Ancheta came to Florida in the 2000s to attend Florida State University where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance then headed to Orlando in pursuit of a job at the House of Mouse.
“I was set on my big Disney dream,” he says. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen right away, but then I started performing on cruise ships. Cruises were my first professional performing jobs.”
Ancheta eventually did become a cast member at the “Happiest Place on Earth,” as well as became a familiar face in Central Florida’s LGBTQ entertainment spotlight in the 2010s. Among his local credits include appearing in shows during the Orlando Fringe Festival, performing at Hope & Help’s 2011 and 2012 Headdress Ball and as a regular fixture of the award-winning Broadway Brunch Bunch at Hamburger Mary’s. “Miss Saigon” is Ancheta’s first national Broadway tour, an opportunity he almost didn’t take.
“After the first year [of the national tour, which began in 2018] a couple of people moved on to other projects and they were looking for a few replacements. So they had a preliminary audition process where they invited several people to come to audition and I was one of those people,” Ancheta says. “Unfortunately, I had just gotten a new job so I didn’t audition, but a second chance opened up a few months later and they reached back out to me and I thought if I don’t show up now I’m never going to get another audition ever again. I went and it was one of the hardest auditions of my life but a about a month later I got the call.”
Ancheta joined the ensemble for “Miss Saigon” in 2019. The current U.S. tour is based on the show’s 2017 Broadway revival and stars Red Concepción, Emily Bautista, Anthony Festa, J. Daughtry, Ellie Fishman, Jinwoo Jung and Christine Bunuan.
“Miss Saigon” is a musical based on the Italian opera “Madame Butterfly” from French composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the same team that created the legendary musical “Les Misérables.” The show begins in 1970s Saigon during the tail end of the Vietnam War.
“’Miss Saigon’ is about the relationship between a bargirl named Kim (played by Bautista) and an American G.I. named Chris (played by Festa),” Ancheta says. “It’s a beautiful love story that shows how their relationship changes both of their lives forever. They found this love in the chaos of the Vietnamese War and the story follows all of the events that transpire after that.”
Kim and Chris’ relationship is complicated, not only by the war going on in Vietnam, but also by the people in their lives including Chris’ best friend, a fellow G.I. named John (played by Daughtry), Kim’s boss at “Dreamland,” the bar she works at, known in the show only as The Engineer (played by Concepción) and Thuy, Kim’s Communist officer cousin (played by Jung) who was betrothed to her when they her children. As the show goes on, Kim and Chris are forced to make life-changing decisions that alter their fate and everyone’s around them.
One of the most impressive things about “Miss Saigon” is the huge scope of the show from the costumes and makeup to the sets and cast. The national tour boasts a cast of more than 40 actors. Ancheta alone plays six different characters and has 14 costume changes every night.
“This show is a huge undertaking and we wouldn’t be able to do it without everyone involved,” Ancheta says. “Obviously the leads are driving the story but the ensemble helps create a greater understanding of the environment we are in and every one of them give everything they have each and every night. I’m so proud of everyone involved who are creating such a beautiful environment for this story.”
Along with the look of the show, a lot of attention has been put into the feel of it as well. When “Miss Saigon” originally played for audiences in London’s West End in 1989 and on Broadway in 1991, major Asian characters The Engineer and Thuy were played by Caucasian actors. Early in the production they even wore eye prosthetics and bronzing cream to make them look “more Asian.”
“Our casting team has taken great care in who they are casting for this show,” Anchetta says. “Red, The Engineer, is from the Philippines and he is fantastic in this role. He played this role in the West End revival of the show in London and left to come perform the role in the United States.”
When Concepción first came on to play The Engineer, while knowing the entire score, he had never seen “Miss Saigon” performed on stage.
“He got a chance to make this his own character without any kind of preconceived notion of who The Engineer was,” Anchetta says. “He has his own unique take on it which is so brilliant.”
The attention paid to authenticity in the show started with the London and Broadway revivals and extend to more than just the casting.
“One of the most iconic scenes in the show is the marriage ceremony,” Anchetta says. “In this marriage ceremony the original lyrics for the show didn’t really make sense. It took a Vietnamese actor in the production on Broadway to mention, ‘Hey, this doesn’t seem as authentic as it could be.’ The composer and lyricist took that into account and they decided they were going to make some alterations and they changed the lyrics to be more accurate to the Vietnamese language. So the lyrics are changed for the tour and that is the version we sing now during the show and that changed because everyone involved with the show wants to be as authentic and true to the story as it can be.”
Another way they are keeping the show authentic is by having two actors of Vietnamese descent act as consultants for the production.
“One is Vietnamese-American and the other is first generation Vietnamese-Australian and they have Vietnamese phrases they use throughout the show as ad libs,” Achetta says. “So anyone who knows the language or knows the culture or is from that area of the world will see and hear that and hopefully think ‘Oh, they are making that effort to be more authentic.’”
For Anchetta, having an authentic production that shows realistic Asian characters is important, especially since he is a person of Asian descent himself, and after a recent conversation with a patron following one of his performances, is grateful that shows like “Miss Saigon” exist.
“An individual, without any intent behind the question, was genuinely asking me when the tour was over would I be allowed to stay in the United States and become a citizen,” Anchetta says. “The shock for me wasn’t really in the question but in the assumption that because of how I look that I couldn’t already be an American citizen.”
In that moment, Anchetta says he wishes there had been more time to have a longer, more honest conversation with that person.
“Maybe I am one of the first people of Asian descent that this person has ever interacted with,” he says. “I could have told them that the majority of the show is made up of American citizens. While it was surprising in the moment, it was enlightening because I realized how important and how special our show is in these smaller cities and towns, and I’m so grateful to have these opportunities to be able to be my authentic self in front of people. We all have more commonality than we think whether we are Asian, Latin, African-American, whether we are LGBTQ or straight, we all have commonalities and the only way we are going to know that is talking to each other and learning from each other.”
Performances for “Miss Saigon” were scheduled at the Straz Center in Tampa March 24-29 and at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando March 31-April 5, but have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information, visit Miss-Saigon.com/US-Tour, StrazCenter.org or DrPhillipsCenter.org.