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Singing their praises

Winnipeg 'Pinoys' enjoy success on local, national stages and inspire entire community

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The annual talent contest showcasing the young singers in our city's Filipino community debuted in 1990 and like many of the sing-off franchises that followed, made celebrities of unknown city performers, some of whom broke through to mainstream stardom.

Ma-Anne Dionisio was a newly arrived teenager from Manila in 1991 when she won Tuklas Talino -- which translates from Tagalog to English as "discovered talents." Two years later, the Tyndall Park resident was Canada's Miss Saigon, gracing the cover of Maclean's magazine and launching an international career.

The same night before a full house at the Pantages Playhouse, nine-year-old Angela Jill Guingcango was crowned the junior champ. A year later, she was playing Cosette in a Canadian touring production of Les Misérables.

Their victories triggered a wave of Filipino performers onto Winnipeg stages that is still felt today. Joseph Sevillo, who won the teen Tuklas Talino in 2000, is currently starring in the boy- band homage Altar Boyz at Prairie Theatre Exchange. Stephanie Sy, who won third place at the CKJS-sponsored search-for-a-star annual competition as a junior in 1996, impressed in both Romeo + Juliet at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre before Christmas and in Avenue Q last month.

The composer Joseph Aragon just made news when his fringe festival musical Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare was chosen over more than 100 works as the debut production of a new but high-profile Toronto stage company called Theatre 20. The troupe's founding members include Dionisio and Les Misérables star Colm Wilkinson, who will direct Bloodless in October.

Then there is Maria Aragon -- no relation -- the YouTube singing sensation whose video version of Lady Gaga's Born This Way is nearing 50 million hits.

It's really not hard to explain the bounty of musical talent pouring out of this fast-growing enclave of almost 60,000 Filipinos in Winnipeg, says Emmie Joachin, who first had the idea for Tuklas Talino when she was co-host of the CKJS radio show Good Morning Philippines in 1990.

"We are a very music-loving people who, even in adversity, express themselves in song and arts," says Joachin, editor-in-chief of the Pilipino Express newspaper. "Our role models are singers, not hockey players."

 

 

Filipinos are often ranked among the happiest people in the world and their good cheer is linked to their singing, which is the most common activity when family and friends gather. Some say it is their fountain of youth, the reason many look younger than they are.

Everyone sings. Even boxing champs like Manny Pacquiao, who went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last year and warbled Sometimes When We Touch. Pacquiao made a better decision when he asked Maria Aragon to sing the national anthem of the Philippines at his last fight in Las Vegas.

And when Pinoys (the name Filipinos use to refer to themselves) sing they are invariably accompanied by a karaoke machine, a Filipino stereotype which happens to be true. Joachim estimates in the early '90s, 95 per cent of Filipino-Winnipeggers had karaoke machines in their basements.

"I remember being eight years old and having a souped-up karaoke machine," says Sevillo, who after winning Tuklas Talino was cast in the musical The Wave at the Manitoba Theatre Centre and later for two years in Mamma Mia! in Toronto.

But all those wannabe singers needed a community showcase, and that was Tuklas Talino. It created instant celebrity among Filipinos, but the game-changer was Dionisio winning a cross-Canada star search for the lead role in Miss Saigon, which christened Toronto's $22-million Princess of Wales Theatre in 1993.

"All the little girls wanted to be Ma-Anne," Joachin says. "She was the perfect role model at the time. She was one of us. She was an immigrant who went to school here and was beautiful and not a Caucasian. Kids thought if I look like her and sing like her, maybe I can be like her."

That was the way it was with Primrose Madayag Knazan, who saw a trailblazer that looked a lot like her and had made it in the theatre world.

"I thought, 'Wow, Filipinos can be in mainstream theatre,'" says Knazan, 36, a regular fringe festival playwright who often writes plays about Filipino-Canadian identity.

"Ma-Anne went to school literally six blocks from where I lived, and I had seen her perform in Company at Tech Voc High School. I could associate with her, and she became an inspiration.

"I was friends with her sister, and I went to Toronto to see Miss Saigon and stayed at their home. I was so star-struck talking to Ma-Anne. She was sleeping in the next room. That was so cool."

Dionisio's entrance into theatrical prominence was the exit for Tricia Magsino, who at 17 was the first winner of Tuklas Talino in 1990. The graduate of Glenlawn Collegiate was at the time mulling over whether to commit to a career in musical theatre or study dentistry. She desperately wanted to become the first Canadian Miss Saigon, and when Ma-Anne was cast she opted for plaque over plays.

"It was all or nothing for me," says the married Magsino Barnabe, who did get to play Kim in Miss Saigon for Rainbow Stage in 2005. "It was a sign from God I should do something else."

She became a dentist, but one that can sing and dance as well as fill cavities. Last May, she played the lead in the all-dentist musical Little Shop of Horrors in benefit of Prairie Theatre Exchange. She organized the fundraiser because she wanted her fellow dentists to experience the rush of being on stage.

"There is no business like show business."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 J8

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