Christian Rey Marbella's journey with Miss Saigon: from ensemble to The Engineer
PUBLISHED: 16:28 24 August 2018 | UPDATED: 17:08 24 August 2018
He’s been in five different Miss Saigon productions across the world and is celebrating his 10th year anniversary in the Cameron Mackintosh blockbuster by playing the role of The Engineer. Currently appearing in Norwich, Christian Rey Marbella tells us about winning the role of a lifetime.
In Miss Saigon, Christian Rey Marbella’s character The Engineer is a million miles away from the absolutely charming man I am speaking to – but the pair share one similar trait: both had a seemingly impossible dream, but only one of them got to live it.
Christian, currently appearing at Norwich Theatre Royal, was on the cusp of following an entirely different career path when an opportunity he simply couldn’t resist landed almost in his lap.
He’d studied biomedicine for four years and was about to take the next step into medical practice when he discovered that much-loved musical Miss Saigon was being brought back to the stage and there were open auditions being held just a short plane journey away.
“I’ve always loved singing and performing but back home (in Cebu, an island in the Philippines) there’s a lot of very talented people and not a lot of jobs, so I decided to study and get a job doing something completely different. I saved all my singing for the laboratory!” Christian laughed.
“In 2002, Cameron Mackintosh announced that he was organising a revival production of Miss Saigon and that there would be open auditions in Manila for some of the roles, a bit like the Britain’s Got Talent auditions. It was all over the news, a really big deal. I’d grown up knowing the music, but had never seen it.
“My Aunt called and asked how I was and if I’d seen about the auditions. She knew I liked to sing and that I performed in as many shows as I could. But I was about to move into the next stage of my medical career, so it wasn’t great timing for me. That night, I wasn’t able to sleep – and nor was my Mum.
“I got a knock on my bedroom door early the next morning and my Mum said to me ‘I’ve been thinking about this. I don’t want you to live your life wondering ‘what if’. You have a talent and if you want to give this a try, then I want you to do it’. So I did. Kudos to my Mum!”
After a flight to Manila, Christian joined the hordes of would-be musical stars to take his place in the auditions.
“I had never been in a professional audition before, but I thought that I’d go just so I could say that I’d had the experience. I went without any expectations and thought I’d be out straight away and then back home to go back to medicine. What I thought would take a day or two ended up taking a whole month!” he said.
“It was very intimidating, especially when the professionals auditioned and you thought ‘I’m nowhere near as good as that!’ By the time I went home, I still didn’t know whether or not I’d got a part, I’d been told that I’d hear at some point. I’d been home a day when the phone rang.
“I was picking up some shopping in the mall on my own and one of Miss Saigon’s company administrators called me and said ‘Hey Christian, you OK? You on your own? Can I have a minute? Well…we’ve decided that we want you to be in our cast…’ I couldn’t believe it!”
Within a week, Christian had moved to Manila. From the thousands who had attended the open audition, he had been one of just a tiny handful chosen to appear in the reboot of Miss Saigon, appearing in his first role in the show as a member of the ensemble.
“This show is a huge ensemble piece and so starting there was a great grounding. It also means that you gain an early respect for the ensemble and how important they are to a show – I never forget that they are the backbone of Miss Saigon. As a principal, I need their energy and support all the time,” he said.
“Miss Saigon has changed my life. I had never travelled anywhere outside the Philippines before, so it has allowed me to see different places and experience different cultures and people. It’s allowed me to grow as a person and I will always be grateful for it.”
After years of being on the road, Christian now has a home of his own to call his own and it’s in the UK, a country he has grown to love, even though he’s not quite so enamoured with the “freezing” weather.
“Two years ago I decided that this would be home. I love the UK – I think I’m a bit of an old soul, so when I come here I love to see all the old architecture and the churches. Here in Norwich it’s so lovely – we’re in the middle of the city but I can still hear the birdsong and you only have to walk for a minute and you can be at a lovely church,” he said.
Christian first visited Norwich in 2005 when he was cast in the role of Thuy, the Vietnamese man who was betrothed to Kim when the pair were 13 and who gatecrashes Kim and Chris’s wedding ceremony to tell her that her decision will bring with it a curse on her life.
“My best memory from Norwich was a really great baguette shop that you had where people would queue out of the door!” laughed Christian, “and I remember the market and the church in the theatre’s car park. I came back this year and there’s a lovely new studio there!”
Now Christian is on stage as The Engineer, a role which sees him on stage for longer than any of the other principals.
As the French-Vietnamese owner of the sleazy nightclub, The Engineer, Christian plays the slippery and avaricious fixer who coerces naïve Kim into his brothel where she meets Chris and the stage is set for the show’s central tragedy to unfold. A larger-than-life character, The Engineer is as much a victim of the Vietnam War as anyone else: forced to act as a pimp to his own mother as a young boy, he pins all his hopes on being able to wrangle his way to the USA and, well, The American Dream.
“I think The Engineer shows you that if you try to take short cuts all the time, you won’t ever get to your destination,” said Christian, “love him or hate him, you can’t ignore The Engineer because he won’t let you. It’s an incredible role with the most wonderful songs to sing.
“I sometimes wonder what happens to him after Miss Saigon ends. Would he get to America in the end? You know? I kind of think he would. And if he did, he’d probably be in a position of power right now and telling everyone else what to do!”
• Miss Saigon is at Norwich Theatre Royal until September 15 2018 at 7.30pm, and Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. There are no Sunday performances. Tickets cost between £8 and £60. Audio-described and signed performance on Wed 29 August at 2.30pm. Captioned performance on Wed 5 Sept at 2.30pm.
• Book now at www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.
Nine quick questions with Christian Rey Marbella
1) Which songs – not your own! – do you like best in Miss Saigon? My favourites are Bui-Doi, the song about the children who were born to Vietnamese women from GIs who had gone back to America and who were left behind and the first song written for Miss Saigon, which is sung by Kim, I’d Give My Life for You.
2) Do you have any other dream roles? If there was colour-blind casting, I’d love to be Javert in Les Miserables or the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera.
3) How do you keep yourself fit when you’re on tour? I have to drink a LOT of water, because I sweat buckets on stage! Sadly, I also have to be very well behaved and watch what I eat and drink because the show takes a lot out of you. Being on tour takes discipline.
4) What do you miss when you’re on tour? Mainly being able to eat and drink what I like! I love a good night out, too, but you can’t stay out all night if you’re on stage the next day!
5) What are you looking forward to doing most in Norwich? I am really liking your sculpture trail with the hares! I am hoping to go round and see them all.
6) Miss Saigon is an emotional rollercoaster. How do you cope with being part of such a tragic story? Some actors go completely into their stories but when I take my costume and make-up off at the end of the night, I leave The Engineer in the theatre with it. I’m already me again by the time I step outside the dressing room.
7) Do you think you’ll ever return to medicine? I don’t think so, but back in 2006 I did manage to do both. I was in America and during the day I worked an eight-hour shift at a blood centre, testing blood, and in the evening I had about an hour and a half to get changed and get across town to perform on stage. I didn’t have a day or night off for eight months!
8) Are you ever tempted to borrow The Engineers’ clothes for a night out? No! Have you SEEN what he wears?!
9) How proud was your Mum the first time she saw you in a professional production? Oh you can’t imagine! She and my sisters came and they loved the show. Really, I owe her so much. It was her who gave me the belief that I could do this, and that it was right for me to do it. I did feel a bit strange cursing and behaving in such a sleazy way in front of my Mum, though!