Devanand Janki
Director & Choreographer

from Canoe on-line magazine, 27 June 1998

Behind Miss Saigon

Home-town star gives a backstage view of high-tech, popular musical

by Shelly Decker

A short walk down the Jubilee Auditorium's dressing room hallway was a powerful moment for Edmonton's Devanand Janki.

Now a hit on Broadway, the 28-year-old actor, who holds one of the lead roles in the $12-million Miss Saigon musical now playing, has waited a long time to take those steps before a performance.

As a child, he performed in the Nutcracker and Carmen on the Jube stage. Always curious, Janki and the other young actors were kept far away from the dressing rooms. On occasion, the young cast members would be escorted to the area to obtain autographs from adult stars.

That changed on Thursday night before Janki took to the stage as Thuy, a nasty character in the love story that revolves around the American flight from Saigon in 1975.

"Now my name's on one of the doors. It's overwhelming,'' Janki said during a backstage tour yesterday of the most technically advanced theatre production to hit our city. "It was pretty emotional.

"It's really very special,'' said Janki, who has danced and sung his way across various Broadway stages since he was 21 and now lives in New York. "Very few people get to do this, come back to their home town in a lead role.''

His dressing room contains the usual makeup and costumes, but a candle burns to help him focus before the show and his good luck charms are always on hand.

Given to him by his first ballet teacher and her daughter when he was 12, Janki still has the tiny stuffed elephant with its trunk raised, which means good luck.

"I keep it with me wherever I perform,'' said the down-to-earth Janki, who said the teacher and daughter are flying in from Portland next weekend to see the show, which runs until July 18 in Edmonton.

The elephant isn't alone any more. Over time a Tiffany's comedy and tragedy mask has been added along with beads and other items from his years of performance.

Relaxing in his dressing room, Janki is loving his return to the Jubilee. It's been five years since his last visit home and a decade since he performed here.

"The theatre's exactly the same. It's been kept up really well. It was very surreal coming to the stage door.''

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To celebrate the return, he arranged to have his maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather fly in from Toronto yesterday to see the show. His brother, an engineer, has also arrived from Detroit.

The show is a spectacular affair, said Janki, who arrives an hour before the Vietnamese blinds roll up to do a physical and vocal warm-up and get dressed.

And it's what one doesn't see that makes it so amazing for a show that has 45,000 kg of props and equipment hanging from the rafters.

"It all looks very intimidating, but it's all smoke, fog and magic,'' said Janki, who wears a bulletproof vest as part of union rules for one of the scenes involving a shooting.

One of the show's highlights, a Huey helicopter, is like the false front of a building on a movie set. In one of the production's most spectacular moments, it descends on a helipad to pick up soldiers from the U.S. Embassy.

A second key visual is the Cadillac reproduction. It's in two pieces high in the rafters.

As it descends the front part slides forward, but fog hides the fact that it remains in two pieces.

Miss Saigon requires a two-metre-high slanted stage, which contains tracks to move the equipment via computer. It can mean some tricky manoeuvring for women in their high heels.

As well, props are built at an angle to make them level for the stage, which gives audiences a much better view. A net rests over the orchestra pit to make sure no one gets hit by anything that may roll off - human or prop.

Backstage it is pitch black and a hub of activity during performances, said Janki, clad in black boots, khakis and a black T-shirt, which hugs a perfectly fit upper torso.

From the 12 computers used to run the show to the 4.5-metre-high statue of Ho Chi Minh or its 450 costumes, Miss Saigon is pushing the envelope for theatre, said Janki.

"It's like a great melding of artistic, technical and musical talents.

"It's our job to make it look effortless and take the audience on a journey."

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