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Ma-Anne Dionisio misses Saigon

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IF life was truly fair, Ma-Anne Dionisio would be playing the title role in the pop opera Miss Saigon set to make its long-awaited Winnipeg debut on Tuesday.

The former Tyndall Park singer has portrayed the reluctant Vietnamese prostitute in the Madame Butterfly-like romantic tragedy more than 1,000 times on stages in Toronto, London, Australia and as recently as last month in Pittsburgh.

It's been her vivid dream to perform for her Canadian home town ever since the then shy 19-year-old Filipino singer was crowned Canada's Miss Saigon in 1993 and was whisked away to Toronto as the angelic face of a $20 million production christening the $22 million Princess of Wales Theatre.

That hope has now become less likely. The Miss Saigon production set to play the Centennial Concert Hall is an American non-Equity roadshow crossing Canada with two young women right out of school alternating as Kim, the young woman who falls in love with an American GI in the crumbling Saigon of 1975.

"I want to do it in Winnipeg," Dionisio says glumly during an interview this week from her home in Toronto. "I'm sad it's not me.

"I feel a certain ownership of the role. In my disillusioned psyche I originated the role of Kim."

The 1989 Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg musical has received mixed reviews crossing the country. The Calgary Herald called it "a well done production and certainly worth sitting through the tragic story and shedding the tear or two that it may provoke." The Edmonton Journal said, "Nobody stole this show but (Jon Jon) Brione's Engineer... helped build a relatively pedestrian production into a moderately engaging enterprise."

At other tour stops in the West, Miss Saigon has been picketed by members of Canadian Actors' Equity Association who last month issued a public appeal not to buy tickets. The association believes the $55-$85 ticket prices represent a cash grab by producers who are using non-Equity actors and paying them half the going rate to increase profits.

So it would be natural for Dionisio, given her history and membership in Canadian Equity, to be dismissive of this down-sized version of the stage spectacular which ran for 4,097 performances on Broadway and stands sixth on the all-time, long-run list. As soon she heard the Winnipeg-bound Miss Saigon is directed by Mitchell Lemsky, Dionisio had an abrupt change of heart.

"If he's directing it, I'd see it," says the mother of a four-year-old Winnipeg-born son. "In my heart he is one of the best directors in the whole wide world. I owe a lot of finding my actor to that man."

The 1993 Toronto version was directed by Nicholas Hytner, with Mitchell Lemsky as associate director -- just as it was for the original London production, on Broadway, in Germany and Japan.

"Needless to say, if anyone knows the show, he would know it," says Dionisio, who later this month will join an American tour of Les Miserables as Eponine. "But I can't believe that he's doing a non-Equity show."

Miss Saigon is seen through the eyes of two Vietnamese characters -- a pimp, who rises to own a nightclub/brothel called Dreamland, and Kim, a virginal woman of endless faith and optimism. She meets and falls in love with an American soldier, Chris, who unknowingly impregnates her, then has to leave her behind when the United States pulls out of Vietnam.

"It's easy for everyone to relate to this universal love story," says the former University of Manitoba student. "People come to cry. It's a release. They come to release emotions whether it's tears or laughter or even anger. It's a tool to keep us all healthy."

Alan Gillespie plays Chris in the Big League Theatricals production which has been re-designed with the blessing of Cameron Mackintosh, the stage impresario who personally offered Dionisio her big break in Miss Saigon. Gillespie says the idea behind the new version is not to emulate the original on a smaller scale but to create a more human, intimate variation.

The big effect in the blockbuster is the landing of a roaring, nearly full-sized helicopter on stage, but also is known for memorable scenes with a floating Cadillac and a mammoth statue of Ho Chi Minh. On this tour, these props are represented with digital projections, lights and sound effects.

"Miss Saigon got wrapped up in special effects," says Gillespie, a 28-year-old New York-based actor. "It became all about the helicopter. The whole point of a scaled-down production was to hit the small cities it has never been to and to focus on the love story."

Earlier this year the tour ran into some flak during the Iraq War as to why see a show about war when one was playing out nightly on television.

"Miss Saigon is not about the Vietnam War," Gillespie says. "The appeal is that this gentle love story can pop out of this horrible time. Even in war something good can come out of it."

That good for Dionisio might involve co-directing Miss Saigon for a Los Angeles theatre. She's been asked and she is interested, although performing is her preferred role. When she arrived in Pittsburgh earlier this year to begin rehearsals, she was met by her old friend Kevin Gray, who was playing the engineer as he had in Toronto a decade ago.

"He just screamed, 'I hate you, you look exactly the same,'" Dionisio says. "I think it's true. If Rainbow wanted to do Miss Saigon next year they should still do it because I'll do it."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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