For more than a year, while Jordan Nichols toured the country playing the role of Marius in “Les Miserables,” there was another musical constantly repeating in the back of his mind.
This one — by the same composers and lyricist as “Les Mis” — was also an epic, though set during the Vietnam War.
“Miss Saigon,” opening this weekend at Playhouse on the Square, is a labor of love for the 27-year-old Nichols, who is making his main-stage debut as both director and choreographer.
“I personally prefer ‘Miss Saigon’ to ‘Les Mis,’” Nichols said. “The music is just so sweeping and elegant. It’s also more contemporary, so to me it feels more accessible. It’s driven by these melodic, sweeping power-ballad duets.”
Based on Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly,” “Miss Saigon” (by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil) is the story of a doomed romance between an American Army lieutenant and a young Vietnamese girl during the fall of Saigon in 1975.
As the Americans pull out of the city, Kim is left behind to fend for herself and her child.
The show had its London premiere in 1989 before moving in 1991 to New York, where it became the 11th-longest-running Broadway musical in history.
Nichols said he suggested doing the show years ago, but his father — Playhouse’s executive producer, Jackie Nichols — worried about the artistic challenges.
“It calls for a large Asian cast,” Jordan Nichols said. “And while there is a large Asian population in Memphis, there aren’t many Asian actors.”
Jordan Nichols, who has been performing since age 6, found his leading lady, Maya Naff, while directing “Avenue Q” in 2011. Other Asian actors showed up to the auditions, and some were hired from elsewhere.
Nichols said a lifetime of working in the theater gave him the confidence to take on “Miss Saigon,” known as much for its single special effect — a full-size helicopter descending onto the stage — as for its music.
Nichols didn’t want the regional theater premiere of the show to be remembered simply for its helicopter, so he and scenic designer Adam Koch decided on a more operatic look.
“Scenically, we’re telling this story from Kim’s perspective,” Nichols said. “I wanted to steer away from a hard-edged feel, which is how I think it’s traditionally done.”
A proficient tap dancer, Nichols picked up choreography over the years working alongside director/choreographer Shorey Walker on popular Playhouse shows like “Hairspray,” and by performing in a wide range of musicals, from “Grease” to “Urinetown.”
“Choreography is such a different skill set,” Nichols said. “I did a lot of research on YouTube to learn more about Asian styles of movement. The main thing I’ve learned from doing both the direction and choreography on this show is that I need an assistant.”
Nichols has a busy year ahead of him. He’ll reprise his role as Marius in Playhouse’s production of “Les Miserables” in August, and he’ll direct “Gypsy” in May 2014. He’ll also be organizing the theater’s new play competition.
Opens Saturday at Playhouse on the Square. Performances 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 2. 66 S. Cooper. All opening weekend tickets are $22. Call 901-726-4656.