by Alice T. Carter Theater Critic
June 7, 2010
Actor Kevin Gray loves to spend his time with people we might think of as villains or dark characters.
In three of his four previous appearances at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, he has played Billy Bigelow in "Carousel," Dr. Jekyll and his alter-ego Mr. Hyde in "Jekyll & Hyde" and The Engineer in "Miss Saigon."
"I just think of them as misunderstood," he says. "Villains reflect parts of what all of us are made of. Like Jekyll and Hyde, we all have parts of good and evil, and we have to choose."
He returns Tuesday to the Civic Light Opera, reprising his role as The Engineer in "Miss Saigon."
Created by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who also turned "Les Miserables" into a live stage musical, "Miss Saigon" is a love story about an American soldier and a young Vietnamese woman. They meet, fall in love and become separated amid the turmoil of the final days of the American occupation of Vietnam in 1975.
The Engineer is the pivotal character who introduces the war-weary Chris to Kim, a young girl fresh from the country who is working at the tawdry Saigon after-hours bar that The Engineer owns. When Saigon falls to the Viet Cong, Chris is forced to leave Kim behind.
Three years later, The Engineer encounters Kim, who reveals she is the mother of Chris' son. Using her as a device to get entry into the United States, The Engineer represents himself as her uncle and contacts an agency that informs Chris that Kim is alive and that he has a son.
Although the play takes place in a vivid period of world and American history, it's also timeless, Gray says.
"This character is not specific to a time and place," he says.
The Engineer is a role Gray never tires of playing. In addition to his appearance at Civic Light Opera in 2003, he played The Engineer in Toronto, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
"One of the reasons I enjoy the show is that this character has the job of holding the show together as it goes backward and forward in a nonlinear situation," he says.
He also enjoys performing the musical's iconic and ironic "American Dream" number, where his character gives voice to pent-up hopes and ambitions that become a simultaneous indictment of the American lifestyle.
At one time or another, every person is forced to choose between what's right and what's necessary. The Engineer, Gray says, forces the audience to recognize that.
"The bottom line is if you want to judge me (The Engineer), I'm going to turn the mirror around," he says.
Seen from a different perspective, characters such as The Engineer or Fagin in "Oliver!" are simply entrepreneurs or capitalists who interpret the rules slightly differently, Gray suggests. "It's about people trying to get by, reaching for their dreams, finding their (place of) safety," he says.
Repeating roles was not something Gray anticipated doing when he first became an actor. But when he was asked to do The Engineer for production at The Muny in St. Louis, he found he enjoyed revisiting the character.
"Not only was the part still alive in me, but I picked up emotions of what was in me," he says. "Because this character is not specific, as the time and place in my life changes, my role changes with it. ... I change, the world changes, and this role becomes more relevant."
This production reunites Gray's Engineer with Ma-Anne Dionisio's Kim. They performed together in "Miss Saigon" productions in Toronto and previously at Civic Light Opera.
"I'm significantly older and more decrepit," Gray says. "(Dionisio) continues to defy science. ... Her personal strength has grown with time, (and) she grew up to be exactly the spectacular grown woman I thought she would be."