A Star Is Born
Winnipeg ingenue Ma-Anne Dionisio sings her way into the spotlight as Miss Saigon
It opens in a Saigon bar called Dreamland. The Vietnam War is winding down. And hookers in bikinis and heels are bumping and grinding their way into the hearts and pants of American marines. A pimp in a purple suit, a Eurasian reptile known as The Engineer, shoves a new girl into the fray, singing, “She’s sort of a virgin, more or less.” She is an orphan from the country named Kim. A waif in a white dress. Frozen by shyness and fear. With an angelic voice, she starts to sing: “I’m 17 and I’m new here today. The village I come from seems so far away. . ..”
Kim is Miss Saigon, the tragic heroine of the megamusical that opens on May 26 in Toronto, christening the lavish new Princess of Wales Theatre. And the voice belongs to Ma-Anne Dionisio, a 19year-old Filipino immigrant from Winnipeg. She is the new girl in the Dreamland of industrial-strength theatre. Like Kim, she is far from home, a working girl braving the perils of show business. The third of five daughters in a family that moved from the Philippines three years ago, Ma-Anne (born Norma Anne) is the product of a strict Roman Catholic upbringing. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a nun. Now, she is playing a reluctant prostitute—and acting out love
scenes more mature than anything she has experienced offstage.
Seasoned Broadway star Kevin Gray, cast in the pivotal role of The Engineer, performs the big production numbers and takes the central bow at the end. But Dionisio, who is singing onstage for all but three scenes, is Miss Saigon. It is a demanding role. And, as a newborn star, she represents the hopes and dreams of a cast that is largely young, inexperienced and Canadian. “It’s a lot of pressure,” she said in a Maclean’s interview last week. “I get up in the night and just start crying. And I’m thinking, ‘Can I really do this?’ I get so scared, because I’m so afraid of letting people down.”
The stakes are high. After Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, Miss Saigon is the juggernaut of megamusicals. It has already conquered London, Broadway and Tokyo. In Toronto, fatherson entrepreneurs Ed and David Mirvish, like postmodern Medicis mocking the recession, have built the $28-million Princess of Wales Theatre specifically to accommodate it (page 34). The production itself cost another $12 million to mount. And next week, when the curtain rises on opening night, all that weight will be riding on Dionisio’s delicate, five-foot, two-inch, 102-lb. frame. As the show’s associate director, Mitchell Lemsky, put it, “Millions of dollars and the reputations of men with huge egos are resting on the shoulders of this 19-year-old girl.” But he added: “I’m not worried. She’s a performer at heart.”
Created by lyricist Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, the French team that wrote Les Misérables, Miss Saigon transposes the story of Madame Butterfly, the Puccini opera, to Vietnam. A kind of Eastmeets-West-side story, it is the tale of a Saigon bar girl who falls desperately in love with an American marine, who abandons her when he joins the evacuation of U.S. troops at the end of the war. Cameron Mackintosh, the Britishbased co-producer who also mounted The Phantom and Les Miz, says that Miss Saigon is an especially difficult piece to cast. It requires a large number of young Asian actors who can sing in English. “But we didn’t want American Asians who are Asian in looks only,” Mackintosh said. “We need Asians with a particular Asian sensibility.” And the role of Kim, he added, requires an Asian teenager “with enormous charm and lungs of steel.”
Earlier productions of Miss Saigon had trouble casting locally. The producers travelled to Manila to recruit talent for the Broadway version, casting Lea Salonga, who was already a major star in the Philippines, in the title role. But 80 per cent of the 46 parts in the Toronto production have been filled by Canadians, many of them from the Filipino community.
The produers of the Toronto show auditioned more than 2,000 performers in nine months across the country. Dionisio was touring with a Canada 125 production called Experience Canada: The Spirit of a Nation when the tryouts began. She had just com pleted her first year as a science stu dent at the University of Manitoba, and had vague plans to become an occupa tional therapist. After winning a radio sponsored singing contest in 1991 and appearing on a local children's TV show, The Rockets, Dionisio had become the darling of Winnipeg's 38,000-member Filipino community. But friends had to talk her into auditioning for Miss Saigon. "I'm the type of person that doesn't really believe in myself," she said.
Dionisio was the very first to try out for the role of Kim. It was clear she had the looks, the charm and, above all, the voice—a soprano as strong and true as bamboo, and ribbed with a gentle vibrato as it soars into the high notes. After five auditions, Mackintosh made the offer. “How would you like to be Miss Saigon?” he asked. “I’d love to be Miss Saigon,” she replied. “You’re Miss Saigon,” he declared.
Now, she has to face the music. The nerve-wracking countdown of rehearsals and previews is almost over. Sitting on a couch in the small downtown apartment that has become her temporary home, Dionisio reflected on the past two months. “I feel a lot older,” she said. ‘You learn a lot. Theatre people are so interesting. They’re just different—some people would call it weird, the way they look at life, the way they talk, just everything.”
Without makeup, Dionisio looks much younger than 19. She was trimly dressed in olive jeans and a matching Liz Claiborne vest— bought in Toronto but, as she proudly pointed out, made in the Philippines. She is bubbly and talkative. But to save her fraying voice, which has become a source of anxiety, Dionisio speaks softly. She cleared her throat at frequent intervals. “Every night I get nervous,” she said, “especially when my voice is like this. I wonder if I can sing. I spent a whole day
without talking. Your voice gets tired, but somehow it comes back at show time.” At the first dress rehearsal with an audience, she recalled: “I cracked my voice four times. But I just smiled, and the people clapped. I thought if I got through that with 2,000 people, what else could possibly go wrong?”
As Dionisio talked, her mother, Erlinda, ate lunch at the kitchen table with one ear cocked. Erlinda, 46, moved to Toronto with Ma-Anne in March for the start of rehearsals, quitting her job as a medical secretary and leaving her husband, Nestor, and their four other daughters (aged 15 to 25) to fend for themselves. She plans to stay on as long as she thinks Ma-Anne needs her. “I told her she didn’t have to come,” said Ma-Anne, “but she didn’t want to leave her daughter alone in the big city.”
Growing up in suburban Manila, Dionisio attended an all-girls Catholic school. Teacher Carina Salgado remembers her at 16. “She sang at mass, at school activities, even walking along the corridors. She had a personality that would win you over—she was always smiling.” After being chosen as a finalist in a talent search at 14, she recorded a single and sang on a variety of TV shows. She was reluctant to emigrate. But for her parents, coming to Canada was a sacrifice designed to give the children better opportunities. Both gave up good jobs in Manila. Erlinda worked as an account analyst in a bank. And Nestor was the vice-president of an insurance company—in Winnipeg he is a quality control worker in a jeans factory. “He now has a boss as opposed to being the boss,” said Erlinda. “It has been a big blow to his ego.” Dionisio considered various careers while attending Winnipeg’s Technical Vocational School. First, she thought of becoming a doctor. “But if I had kids,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to be beeped to the hospital all the time.” Dentistry offered a more stable schedule, and she studied dental assisting. “Working on teeth and doing molds was really fun,” she said. “But after a while, I said, Wait a minute, this is going to be it." It’s just like, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and you look at mouths every day.” She also received an offer to study air-traffic control. But that sounded too stressful. “Those dots on the screen change into people and they’re, like, lives in your hands,” she said with childlike sincerity. “If two planes hit each other and it’s your fault, you could never go to sleep.”
The Dionisios raised Ma-Anne and her sisters according to traditional Filipino values. They forbade dating before the age of 18. “If Nestor was given a choice,” Erlinda said with a laugh, “he’d probably put all the girls in a room and not let them out.” Coming from such a sheltered background, Dionisio had little experience to pre-
pare her for the raunch and romance of playing a bar girl in Miss Saigon.
She found rehearsing the love scenes especially difficult. When she first had to kiss her co-star H. E. Greer, who plays Kim’s lover, she said that she “tried to fake it, just on the cheek, and Mitchell [Lemsky] goes, ‘No, kiss him!’ ” Recalled Lemsky, who was directing the scene: “She shrivelled away from it I suspect she hadn’t ever kissed anyone. There were lots of giggles, but I didn’t indulge her. I thought she need to be pushed. I said, ‘Listen, get over it. It’s just fiction, and it doesn’t have to be associated with your own sexuality.
It helps if it is, but it doesn’t have to be.’ ”
Dionisio, who eventually kissed on command, says that she is relieved that her co-star is married—“Now I know that there are no strings or anything, that we’re just doing it on a professional basis.” Greer, explaining that it took Dionisio a few weeks to get over her timidity, said: “It was a lot of uncharted territory for her. I felt very bad about it.”
Although Dionisio has a boyfriend in Winnipeg, a Filipino student who gave
her a small diamond ring when they started going out, she still seems to live in a child’s world. Her favorite movies are Disney cartoons— especially Aladdin. Her favorite TV shows are juvenile sitcoms including Growing Pains, Blossom and Who’s the Boss? And, when she tries to identity with her character’s suffering, she has very limited experience to draw on—“simple situations, like if you’re a kid and you want a lollipop and your mom says you can’t have it. Or if your mom wants you to get a haircut and you don’t want a haircut. But you get a haircut.”
Dionisios mother remains a constant point of reference. And she watches her daughter’s emerging stardom with an anxious eye. “If given a choice, my husband and I wouldn’t like any of our kids to be in show business,” she said. “You know how show business is—it's such a stressful life. But we don’t want to stifle their interest.”
Erlinda said that some nights after rehearsals, Ma-Anne “would get very sad and scared and burst into tears, saying her voice is hurting already and maybe she couldn’t sing any more. I just let her cry. And I embrace her and say, ‘Are you crazy? Do you think they would gamble with a $40-million production, choosing you as the lead if they think you can’t do it?’ In the contract there is a clause that after two weeks, they can fire anybody who is not good enough. I said, ‘You’ve passed the first obstacle. So many people are rallying behind you, your fans in Winnipeg, your family and relatives, they’re all praying for you.’ ”
After the opening, Erlinda intends to look for a job in Toronto and live with her daughter for another year or two if necessary. But back in Winnipeg, Nestor says, “As a wife and mother, she’s badly needed here at home.” And Ma-Anne, in a moment alone, describes her mother as “overprotective—I find it really weird, because there are other Filipino cast members who are even younger than me, and they’re on their own.” But,
she adds, “in a Filipino family, you can’t just say, ‘I don’t want you here.’ ”
Her director disagrees. “I think she should throw her mother out,” said Lemsky with a mischievous smile. He picked up the Maclean’s tape recorder and repeated it right into the microphone. “She should throw her mother out! She’s a woman. She’s not a girl. She’s got a job—a good job. It’s time to leave home.”
Lemsky says that he often feels like a parent himself directing Miss Saigon’s young cast members. “First they’re dependent on you for everything,” he said. “Then they start to strike out on their own and reject you. Then it’s like early adulthood, where they come back around.” Dionisio, he added, had to be pushed. “She hasn’t done any acting. She doesn’t know how to actually rehearse. At first we were easy on her. Then after a while I started saying, ‘This is your responsibility, and yes, get your hair out of your face, and yes, today you’re going to have arms’—she would rehearse with her sleeves pulled over her hands.”
In high-stakes theatre, there is no room for pampering a young star. “It’s a nasty business,” said Lemsky. “She’ll have to decide if she likes it or not. There’s lots of shouting and everyone’s giving her the fish-eye. And if she thinks it’s going to be easy after the opening—it gets harder.” Then he added: “It’s a dangerous profes-
sion she has chosen, in the sense that she throws herself up there and people judge her. They look at her body and listen to her voice and say, ‘I like that’ or, ‘No, I hate that.’ ”
Backstage, Dionisio sat in her rust-red Miss Saigon bathrobe getting ready for another rehearsal. There is an Aladdin poster on her dressing-room wall, and family snapshots ring the makeup mirror. She pointed to a giant greeting card from her family, adorned with teddy bears. Inside, at the end of all the scribbled notes of affection of reassurance, is a silver shooting star. “Shooting stars are a special thing for me,” she said. “Once, I lay on the rooftop of our church with my friends on Christmas Eve and we saw seven shooting stars that night. I love the stars. You know the brightest star in the sky, Venus? When I left the Philippines, I told my friends it was me, and every time they miss me, they could talk to me. When I left Winnipeg, I told my friends the same thing—that’s me. ” And, with a smile lighting up her face, she looked like a kid on Christmas morning. Waiting to see a wish upon a star come true.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON with
in Manila and