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"Sitting next to me is the first officer, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, doing the makeup because she got up very late this morning," Ngoc Ngan said, still in the English-language drawl of an in-flight narrator. "I have tell her many, many times that you should not spend so much time doing the makeup because people might think you're getting old."
Ky Duyen shot him a stern look and, as the audience laughed, interrupted him: "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. This is your first officer speaking, and my role is very important, because if your captain die" — she shouted that last word — "I'll be the one taking you to your final destination."
After a few minutes of banter in Vietnamese, they disappeared from the screens, returning attention to the stage. Overhead, Ky Duyen and Ngoc Ngan counted down in English:
"Lighting, sound, music, and roll tape!"
The voice of a classic Vegas ringside announcer read the title of the production. Curtains lifted. Keyboard arpeggios whirled, a triangle pinged. Nearly two dozen dancers took to the stage in pirouettes and leaps, silk sheets falling from their arms and elaborate metallic pendants bouncing on their chests. Drums kicked in; violins stabbed dramatically. From behind the dancing phalanx, three women rose into the air on narrow platforms. The audience hooted in recognition of the singers, who traded lines while being ferried up and down.
Backstage, Shanda Sawyer, the show's dance choreographer, operated the lifts from a control panel. "That was a little nerve-wracking," she says, laughing, months later, "because it's dangerous, getting these beautiful singers in their 6-inch pumps up and down and in time for the camera shot and in sync with the music."
Sawyer was used to the pressure, though. The Los Angeles–based choreographer has developed routines for events including the Academy Awards, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, and Disneyland's Christmas parade. She's among the legion of experienced outsiders who have been brought into the world of Paris by Night over the years — she started in 1995 — to make it into what it is, and her experience shows: Paris by Night has the pacing and feel of an awards show, the splendor of a circus, and the diversity of a parade.
"Everything behind Thuy Nga is Hollywood," Ky Duyen says. "Only the singers are Vietnamese faces. But from the director, the lighting director, the union — these are professional guys. Some of our dancers, they're right now dancing with Beyoncé; they're on tour with Britney Spears — they're the best."
The best: That's the idea behind Paris by Night. Ask the average Vietnamese immigrant how Thuy Nga is distinguished from other production outfits such as Asia Entertainment and Van Son, each of which has its own line of variety-show DVDs, and the response is usually the same: the quality, the production values, and the prestige.
After performing for a few smaller companies, Le signed a contract with Thuy Nga in 2002. He remembers flying to Paris for his first taping and being surprised — and a little intimidated — at how strictly organized the run-up to the show was, from wake-up hour to makeup to curtain time.
What wasn't unexpected was the effect the show would have on his career. Being signed to Thuy Nga is akin to, in American singing terms, being signed to a major label and getting an MTV reality show. Singers put out solo CDs in addition to the work they do on Paris by Night, but it's usually the fact that they've appeared on the show that gets people to buy those CDs. And it's Thuy Nga that often earns singers the fans who show up for their solo concerts.
"I have been working with Thuy Nga for eight years now," says Le, who is known for singing traditional Vietnamese ballads. "Before, nobody knew Quang Le, but now all the Vietnamese recognize me. All of my life is connected to Thuy Nga."
Marie To spends much of her time in Thuy Nga's offices, but you're also likely to find her a couple of doors down. In the offices of RMI Cargo, To — usually dressed in black, with her hair cropped at her neck — gestures while coordinating her media empire through a Bluetooth earpiece. A few years ago, Thuy Nga started RMI Cargo to increase revenues. The money from the shipping company, whose work is unrelated to singing or dancing, helps subsidize Paris by Night.
This is Thuy Nga's biggest secret that it no longer wishes to keep: It isn't rich. Though the problem is worse than ever, it isn't new. In 1999, during a filming of Paris by Night at Long Beach's Terrace Theater, a representative for one of the national filmworkers' unions told To he would shut down the production midcourse — hours before a ticket-holding audience was set to arrive — if Thuy Nga didn't turn the production into a union shoot. That meant paying $150,000 worth of dues on the spot. Sobbing, she got permission from a group of singers to withhold their salaries. The crisis was averted, but just barely: At Thuy Nga, there's never much money in the bank. "They needed the cash right away," she remembers. "It was like a nightmare."