THEATER : Living the American Dream : Jennifer Paz's family moved to Seattle from the Philippines when she was 5. Now, at 21, the star of 'Miss Saigon' is really on the move.

Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Talk about a splashy entrance.

Jennifer Paz--currently on the Ahmanson stage in "Miss Saigon"--was discovered at an open-call audition for the role in Vancouver when she was a 19-year-old Seattle college student. She had had no stage experience beyond community theater and no vocal training whatsoever.

"It was kind of an accident, actually," says the soft-spoken Paz, seated in her dressing room after a recent Sunday matinee. "I drove up there to audition, and they cast me on the spot."

That was 2 1/2 years ago. Now 21, she's an old pro in the lead of one of the top-grossing and most controversial shows in the age of the mega-musical. Written by the French duo of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil--who also penned "Les Miserables"--"Miss Saigon" is produced by Cameron Mackintosh.

The story is an updated version of Puccini's 1904 opera, "Madama Butterfly," set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Kim (Paz) is a Vietnamese bar girl who falls in love with a Marine named Chris (Peter Lockyer), only to be separated from him during the fall of Saigon.

Chris goes home to the United States and marries an American named Ellen. Meanwhile, Kim bears Chris' son and ends up living in Thailand with the boy. She and Chris meet again in the second act, but the ending isn't happy.

Kim is driven by the hope of a brighter future for her son, and that's an American dream that the Philippines-born Paz can understand. "My parents wanted to bring us here so that we would have a better life," she says. "That's what Kim ultimately desires for her child and what she sacrifices herself for in the show."

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Paz, the youngest of four children, moved with her family from the Philippines to Seattle--where her mother's brother was living at the time--when she was 5 years old.

"It was hard because we didn't know hardly anybody," says Paz. "We lived in a basement for a few months, but my parents got jobs almost immediately and we saved up money and got a house."

She turned into a quiet, suburban girl. "I was quite shy, actually," she says. "I was in a couple of plays in high school, but I was always in the background, so this is all new to me."

When she braved the "Miss Saigon" audition, Paz had just completed her freshman year at the University of Washington in Seattle. She hadn't yet made up her mind what to major in, but after the audition, her future plans suddenly became clear.

Originally offered a contract to be an understudy in the New York production, Paz was at the last minute given the option of becoming the alternate for the touring company. (Alternates perform two shows of the eight each week. Understudies do not perform unless the regularly scheduled actors are unable to go on.)

Paz decided to take the offer with the touring show, which was launched in 1992 in Chicago, because it offered her the chance to actually perform the role and to see the country to boot.

She headed for the Windy City, not really knowing what to expect. Since then, it has been "like on-the-job training for the last two years," she says. She also had to get by without a lot of coaching. "Being the alternate, they didn't rehearse me," says Paz. "I mainly watched at rehearsals."

Yet Paz rose to the challenge. "I learned on my own, basically," she says. "The first time I went on was the first time I'd actually gone through the entire show."

Paz performed as an alternate for six months and was moved into the role in April, 1993. Since then, she has received much acclaim for her performance. The Times' theater critic Laurie Winer wrote: "The stillness, simplicity and grace of her performance form the heart of the show, a perfect jewel in a garish setting."

The one thing Paz might have done differently was to have been less self-conscious about her inexperience. "It was intimidating to come and work with all these actors when I was this 19-year-old girl from college and didn't know anything," she says. "Looking back, I can say it was OK for me to be who I was and ask questions."

As for developing her character, that was also a do-it-yourself project.

Fortunately, her vague memories of the Philippines gave her a way to understand Kim's life. "Living in a village, everything was simple, centered on family and religion, and you didn't really have any luxuries," says Paz. "Kim lives a simple life, so I identified with her character in that way."

More important, Paz's cultural background helped her understand why Kim suffers in silence as she waits for Chris to return. "Coming from a Filipino Catholic background, my mom taught me that, even if something's painful, endure it," says Paz. "That comes with the culture."

Even though Paz is by her own account "Americanized," she could grasp Kim's point of view. "As a Filipino daughter, I had to straddle both cultures," says Paz. "My mom and I have arguments about the way I think and the way she thinks. It's tough. We still have that barrier between us."

That familiarity with her mother's perspective helps Paz give Kim the benefit of the doubt. "She didn't really have any choices," says Paz of her character's predicament. "She's like a puppet in this world."

There is, nonetheless, an inner fortitude to Kim. "A lot of times, she's in way over her head, but it's all for the child," says Paz. "She's naive, but she has a strong quality."

Paz has found corroboration for her interpretation of Kim in talking with Vietnam veterans who have come to see "Miss Saigon." "GIs that came to the show saw the (Vietnamese) women as dignified," says Paz. "(Working as bar girls) was something they were proud of doing because they were coming home with food to feed their family."

This is particularly true for Kim, whom the audience first meets shortly after her parents have been murdered and she has been forced to make her way in the city. "Even though she grew up in this village, somehow she learns," says Paz. "She's ambitious. She's contemporary in her decision not to go with (an arranged marriage with her cousin) Thuy."

Paz, too, has become tougher over the years. "Before, I used to play (Kim) as this young, innocent, naive girl all the way through," she says. "I was so naive about the stage, I just used that."

She and Kim have matured, though. "Now, I've grown as much as she has," says Paz. "Some reviewers have said that I play a stronger and more believable Kim in Act II, than the love-smitten girl in Act I. Before, they said that I lacked the strong qualities in Act II, and I think that fits."

Paz might have wished for a less controversial vehicle in which to make her major theater debut. In some circles, after all, "Miss Saigon" is still remembered primarily for the trouble it stirred up.

In the summer of 1990--after its 1989 London premiere and before its 1991 Broadway opening--"Miss Saigon" became the object of a protest by Asian American theater artists and others. They were angry at the casting of a white actor, Jonathan Pryce, as the Eurasian Engineer--a role they felt should have gone to an Asian or part-Asian performer. Shortly after these complaints surfaced, "Miss Saigon" also began to be criticized for its depiction of Asian women.

The hue and cry has dwindled since then, but Paz says pickets still turn up now and then. "I know that we've had protesters, but being Asian American, I wouldn't want to be in a show that would portray Asians in a stereotypical way," she says. "You have to understand that this was the life of that time, and (women like Kim) did what they had to do to survive."

Protesters have pointed to the similarities between the passive Puccini heroine Cio-Cio San and Kim. "There are parallels, but she's stronger than Cio-Cio San," says Paz. "Kim doesn't kill herself just because she loses face. Her intent is admirable." Besides, says Paz of the protesters, "a lot of these people, ironically, hadn't even seen the show."

Yet, she is not without ambivalence. "I can argue both sides," says Paz. "Why do Asians always have to lose? Watching different films, you see Asians suffering. I can't tell you why."

What she can tell you, without hesitation, is that "Miss Saigon" has been a turning point in her life. When the show's Los Angeles engagement concludes in October, Paz will leave the company to pursue an acting career in film and TV.

"I'm going to take advantage of this opportunity now and settle here in Los Angeles," she says. "As far as going back to school, there'll come a time down the line for that."

In all, she says, making the city-to-city trek with the show has been "exciting, but I'd rather be back on the West Coast. Touring is stressful. I had so much to learn that I didn't get tired of it, but now I'm starting to feel it."

She is grateful for the breakthrough gig, though, hard work and all. "I couldn't imagine being in the Philippines now, not having these opportunities," she says. "In that way, the show really hit home with me and put my life, and what my parents wanted for us, into perspective. We are all very blessed coming here."

* "Miss Saigon," Ahmanson Theatre, the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Through Oct. 14 . $45-$65. (213) 365-3500.

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