It is so forceful, it really takes your breath away,” says director Brian Clowdus. He’s not lying.
The Serenbe Playhouse production of Miss Saigon is set in the secluded hills of Georgia, in a 1,000-acre residential and commercial community called Serenbe, located in Chattahoochee Hill Country. Audiences must find their way to the setting of Saigon’s Dreamland, deep in the woods where a shipping container lies in front of a dirt hill and a small pool of water. Off in the distance is a landing spot for the Huey helicopter once used in the Vietnam War and now flown by actual war veterans for the show.
As day turns to night before audiences’ eyes, Saigon takes shape. A young, angelic Kim emerges from behind the shipping container to enter the movie in her mind—a cinematic take on the production conceived by Clowdus—and marines ride in on trucks as dusk approaches. By the time the show reaches Act II, the chopper rides in from a hidden location, circles overhead and descends—slightly kicking up water and grass with a powerful gust of wind—to land in the distance.
Kim is replaying her personal nightmare: the American evacuation from the U.S. Embassy on April 30, 1975, during the Vietnam War. She looks towards the helicopter, her back to the audience, and watches as it flies away, leaving her behind. As the story goes, her marine lover (and father of her child) was suddenly taken back to America on a military chopper, and she relives the moment he was torn from her.
“I could feel the helicopter before I hear it,” explains Niki Badua, the show’s Kim. “I feel the ground is shaking underneath me, and I [think], ‘Oh my God, it’s coming.’ I see the helicopter and feel the wind.” The first time the helicopter landed, “I turned around and faced to the front,” she says, “and my face was the most genuine reaction. I was crying. I had chills. I’m getting chills thinking about it. It’s just so real. It’s real, so you feel it in all five senses.”
But it took work to get the real thing, and Clowdus (the founder and artistic director of Serenbe) wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I just said it was going to happen, and I had no idea [how],” he explains on Saigon’s opening weekend. “So what do you do? You get on Google. Google Vietnam Helicopters. It's the Huey. How do I rent one? It turns out there’s an Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, the only one in the country that specializes in restoring Vietnam helicopters and using them, 40 minutes from Serenbe in a town called Hampton, GA. I emailed them, pitched the idea, they thought I was crazy. I called them, [and they still] thought I was crazy. I literally drove over there one day, introduced myself and said, ‘I’m really serious. I want to make this happen.’ They’re used to flying helicopters in air shows and movies, but they have never committed to a month-long musical. They’re landing the helicopter over 20 times [throughout the run].”