As Canadian musical theatre star Ma-Anne Dionisio prepares to give Winnipeg a taste of her talent via the hit musical Mamma Mia at Rainbow Stage, this may be a good time to put her relationship to the city in perspective.
Winnipeg tends to lay claim to the petite, dynamic Dionisio. But truth be told, her time here was brief. She was 16 when she moved to the city with her family from the Phillipines in 1990. But she had already established a reputation as an entertainer in the Philippines at the age of 14 in the television and music industries.
"I wasn’t here for very long because as soon as we got here, I was cast in a musical in celebration of Canada’s 125th anniversary, called Experience Canada," she recalls while on a break from rehearsals at the Kildonan Park theatre. "I toured with that all across the country, and while I was doing that, someone in Toronto saw me and asked me to come in and (audition) for Miss Saigon.
"And then I moved to Toronto," she says, upon the scoring the pivotal role of Kim in the Toronto production, winning the Dora Mavor Moore Award for her work in 1994.
"I haven’t been back since," she says.
Well, she has come to town in concert settings and family visits. (Her parents and older sister still live here.) But Mamma Mia, a jukebox musical featuring the hits of Swedish supergroup ABBA, actually represents her Winnipeg debut in musical theatre, she says.
"So I literally jumped at the opportunity, first because they offered me a role that I normally wouldn’t be offered to play, and it’s the summer and I would love to spend time with my parents and have that time with my children and my parents together. Family stuff."
This is Dionisio’s first time in the role of Donna, the vivacious mother who must come to terms with her hedonistic past when her daughter Sophie is about to be married and, unbeknownst to Donna, has invited three of her past suitors, one of whom is Sophie’s biological father.
Dionisio, who comically gives her age as "72" but is in fact in her early 40s, acknowledges that people still tend to see her in the roles of the younger characters she has played, including Little Girl in the 2002 Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song, Eponine in the U.S. touring production of Les Misérables and Maria in the Stratford production of West Side Story.
"Interestingly enough, when people heard I was doing Mamma Mia, the assumption was that I was playing Sophie. That includes my mother and my sister, and I thought, ‘Come on, guys.’"
Truth be told, Dionisio looks like she could fit into either role given her energy and persistently youthful beauty. But she says she enthusiastially took the role of the more worldly Donna.
"I’m very grateful to be playing something that’s closer to my age," she says.
"A lot of people don’t take that risk with me. I’m still cast as the young one."
She intends to stay in that groove. (Her next role will be in Bittergirl: The Musical at Regina’s Globe Theatre in September.) And in the meantime, she enjoys playing roles that reflect her own life experience. Like Donna, Dionisio is a single mom. She is raising three teenagers — two boys and a girl — in her downtown Toronto home.
For all the pop frivolity of the Mamma Mia, there are moments, Dionisio says, that the character hits close to home for her.
Even in the context of a pop song, there’s certainly a level of an emotional investment that is required of you," she says, adding her relatability to the character "surprised" her.
As for the music, Dionisio says she wasn’t an ABBA fan growing up, but has since grown to appreciate music that isn’t necessarily as frothy and lightweight as it might seem at first exposure.
"It is not simple music," she says. "The artistry of it is that it sounds simple, but it’s not. The one thing I love about their songs is that each song is a story. It’s actually quite brilliant."
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