A Huey helicopter flies low over a field at Serenbe, about an hour south of Atlanta. This isn’t a military exercise or a film shoot, but Serenbe Playhouse’s theatrical production of “Miss Saigon,” the story of star-crossed lovers in war-torn Vietnam.
Executive and artistic director Brian Clowdus spent eight months convincing the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, based in Hampton, Georgia, to participate.
“I emailed them, they thought I was crazy,” Clowdus recalls. But months of visits and phone calls paid off as a rotation of five pilots and three helicopters are now committed to the production. For each performance, one Huey will land in Serenbe’s Wild Flower Meadow at a key moment in the show.
The impressive setpieces don’t end there either.
The challenges of outdoor theater haven’t stopped Clowdus from creating the world of the show in a field.
“You literally can do anything you want to,” he says. “You know you’re building a theater from the ground up. A month ago there was nothing here, not even power.”
Scaffolding frames the main stage area, which is divided by a reflecting pool. An enormous dirt “mountain” has been built up over a shipping container, which acts as the back of the stage. As Clowdus shows off the scenery, actors sound check on-stage and music can be heard through the show’s PA system. The music is coming from a live 13-piece orchestra which is nowhere in sight. As it turns out, they’re housed inside the air-conditioned shipping container.
Just as important as the visuals and the music is the cast, and for a show set in Vietnam, casting can prove to be challenging.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge to cast racially specific,” Clowdus explains, “but for me as a producer, if you can’t cast racially specific, you should not be producing the work.”
“Saigon’s” lead is 22-year-old Hawaiian-born Niki Badua, who previously appeared in the North American touring production of “Mamma Mia!”
“Kim has always been a dream role of mine,” says Badua, who is now based in New York City. She recalls that Serenbe put out a national audition call in the publication Playbill, asking for video submissions.
“I was so excited that … I sent it the next day! Brian has told me that I was the first video submission that they got, so the early bird gets the worm I guess in this situation!” she says, laughing.
Only later did Badua find out about the outsized ambitions of the production.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is a different type of theater experience I’m going to get!'” she remembers. “This experience has been more than anything I would have thought my first production of “Miss Saigon” would have ever been.”
Serenbe Playhouse’s production of “Miss Saigon” is open through Aug. 14.