3 min

Miss Saigon hits Ottawa

Actor embraces the role of a lifetime

Credit: Capital Xtra files

Miss Saigon’s tragedy unfolded for the thousandth time as 14-year-old Jamal McDonald gaped in awe at the stage. Flanked by his mother, stepfather and sister, the Los Angeles native fell hopelessly in love with the score that was to be the first CD he ever bought.

But he couldn’t have known, as he absorbed Broadway’s sixth-longest running show, that he was staring destiny in the eye.

Eight years later, McDonald is touring the nation, taking the stage nightly as a member of the musical’s active ensemble in the most challenging role of his life – one he committed to memory as a teen.

“The CD was pretty warped by the time I was done with it,” recalls McDonald, who’s been on the road with Miss Saigon since last August. “I thought, when I got this role, this is fate.”

As part of the ensemble, McDonald manages over 10 costume changes nightly, while working through a notoriously high and challenging score.

“The whole show has some pretty difficult singing, it’s written high. The ensemble has a lot of singing, lots of movement. Basically, if I’m not on stage, I’m backstage changing,” he explains.

The year is 1975. Saigon is about to fall as the Americans prepare to evacuate the city. Amid the chaos, American GI Chris falls in love with an orphaned whore, Kim, and after a passionate love affair, the pair are eventually torn apart. Three years later, the pain is rekindled as Chris journeys back to Vietnam to meet the son he never knew he had, with his new American wife, Ellen, by his side.

“It’s an emotional experience,” says McDonald of the drama. “You walk out of the theatre changed. It’s going to be interesting to see how Canadians react to an American story. But it’s not really about being an American, it’s about being human, cheesy as that sounds.”

McDonald begins each night in the shoes of an American GI soldier in full fatigues, flak jacket and helmet. By the end of the night, he’s seeing the world as a member of the Vietcong.

“When I am playing a Vietnamese, I wear a little rice hat. There’s a lot of hats in this show,” says McDonald, adding that for realism’s sake, the men wear no makeup on stage.

As Miss Saigon’s backdrop flips from Vietnam to Bangkok to the United States, a closer look at the cast reveals an even more varied mosaic of ethnicity, with a striking lack of Vietnamese actors.

“It’s predominantly Filipino,” muses McDonald, adding that there are some Chinese, Japanese and Korean actors.

McDonald himself is a patchwork of races, covering the gamut with his Dominican/American roots and oddly Irish name. “I’m not sure how that got in there, but I definitely don’t look Irish,” he laughs.

Variety suits him, however, and McDonald’s career goals reflect that. When his run with Miss Saigon ends in Montreal this season, he hopes to focus on regional acting in the States.

“I’ll be back in New York for the main audition block,” he explains over the phone from his Calgary hotel room. “I want to explore other options. Right now, I’ve been on the road, and I want to take down time and relax.”

At the tender age of 22, McDonald already has a bachelor of fine arts from Ithaca in New York, and leading roles in Big River and Parade under his rice hat. And thanks to the theatrical lifestyle, he’s also experienced half of Canada in the last year.

“I loved Vancouver, it’s beautiful,” he gushed. “We got like a night and a half of rain, but it wasn’t bad. I hear the weather can be iffy.”

Mid-August, the tour takes McDonald to Ottawa, where he’s hoping to find a decent bar scene. “I’m single, it’s kinda tough being on the road,” he explains.

But the gruelling life of a cast member has made a seasoned professional out of him by forcing him to build up his stamina. Coming up on his 400th show, McDonald has a keen understanding of exhaustion.

“It’s some of the most gorgeous score in musical theatre,” he says of the show he pours his soul into eight times a week. “Even if your voice doesn’t feel like it and your body is tired. I’ve definitely learned so much from this show.”


Miss Saigon sweeps into the National Arts Centre from Aug 13 to 24. To buy tickets call Ticketmaster at 755-111 or buy tickets online at