Over the summer, Joanna Ampil was playing Bloody Mary in the reimagined production of South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre, where she was directed by Daniel Evans, with the show closing in September and she will be reprising the role when the musical opens for a London run in 2022. Joanna has played Grizabella a number of times in CATS around the world, with her first appearance in the show in 2013 and she will once again rejoin the cast next year in Taiwan. Across her established theatre career so far, Joanna has performed in many shows including as Jenna in the international premiere of Waitress the Musical, Fantine in Les Misérables in the West End and was also able to perform in front of the Royal Family at Windsor Castle, and she started her theatre career playing Kim in Miss Saigon at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. On screen, Joanna plays Maya in the 2019 series Call Me Tita and they were filming the second series when COVID closed down production, and with the award-winning feature film Ang Larawan/The Portrait, she can be seen in the role of Candida Marasigan. During the pandemic, Joanna was part of The Show Must Go On documentary, and as a recording artist, she has been involved with cast albums and her own music. We talked to Joanna about playing Bloody Mary in South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre, her role of Grizabella in CATS around the world and working on the TV series Call Me Tita.
Most recently, you played Bloody Mary in the reimagined South Pacific at the Chichester Festival Theatre, what was she like to play and how was it seeing the audience response to the show?
Bloody Mary is probably one of the most challenging roles I have tackled. I am going against typecasting but at the same time it is vocally taxing from the constant shouting dialogue leading up to classic musical singing. Daniel Evans assured me that it will be a reimagined South Pacific, squashing stereotypes and relying heavily on the human side of the character; he basically told me to not think about past productions since we will present the show and its characters through a completely different lens. The characters who didn’t have much to say in the past will be given more of a voice in this production.
The audiences’ response have been amazing, we had a warm welcome from the Chichester patrons and the usual matinee crowd from London who will take the train back after the show. The messages I have received from people who watched the streaming from all over the world have also been heart-warming. We believed that this show is necessary after sociopolitical climate surrounding the world and I am proud that this role is an important representation for many things including race. I’m glad to say that I am also sharing that responsibility with other Filipino artists who are in the show with me.
What did you enjoy most about being in the cast and performing in Chichester?
It was an incredible cast and probably one of the nicest groups of artists I have worked with. A lot of humility, and kindness that was encouraged by our fearless director Daniel Evans. There were exciting professional debuts as well and truly enjoyed celebrating that with the newly graduates.
Chichester was lovely and I can speak for the rest of the cast that we all enjoyed our summer stint at the Festival Theatre. We are so proud as well that we never had to cancel a show since there was 0 transmission throughout the duration of the run.
How was it preparing for opening in the show and what was it like on closing night?
Early this year, when we got word that we can finally go ahead with the show (COVID-19 pandemic led to postponement for a year), Daniel encouraged everyone to do some research and create a backstory for our characters. I did a lot of reading on history and research on Tonkinese immigrants to support my character sketch of Bloody Mary. It’s a wonderful learning process specially enriching your knowledge about the realities of the war and what went on in that part of the world during that era. Bloody Mary’s motherly trait was also compared to Mother Courage by Brecht. We are exploring her different traits as this rare and strong female presence on the island, a mother to all, a successful businesswoman, a performer, a person who enjoys languages, and, ultimately, a mother to Liat, who wants nothing more than to give her child the best future she herself never had. She is presented as the smartest person on the island. We are presenting the ‘constructed’ Bloody Mary by utilising the whole pidjin English, the peddler look as a put on character she invented as a tactic for a successful business; a performance for the Sailors and characters on the island. She later on reveals the ‘deconstructing’ of Bloody Mary presenting the more human side of the character more than just a caricature. The preparation includes learning new arrangements for the songs which will be in keeping with the characters’ moods.
It was a bittersweet closing night but at the same time ecstatic that it was filmed and streamed all over the world so everyone had the chance to see how different this production is compared to how it was done previously (never taking away how brilliant those productions were too) and how we meticulously took care of each scene in the play to make sure that we are giving justice to the characters, the subject matter and the acting choices made. Ultimately, we’d like for people to actively keep the conversations and discussions going after watching it.
You have played Grizabella a number of times in CATS, was there anything that originally drew you to the role and production and do you have a favourite aspect of playing Grizabella?
It was a dream role of mine ever since I saw it in the West End in its original run at the New London Theatre. My favourite aspect of it for an actor is that you get so many chances to interpret the role, and you can change it up a bit (within reason and within the context). It’s also very universal and relatable, it doesn’t present complicated issues that may be cultural, political or racial. You just open up your heart and allow people to feel and celebrate their emotions through the songs and storytelling. I know my Grizabella has now matured compared to when I first performed it in 2013 and it’s a role that I never get tired of playing. I consider CATS as the gift of a show that keeps on giving. Apart from the joy it brought me by playing the role, it allowed me to travel the world with the tour schedules we had.
How is the experience telling the story of CATS around the world?
I am grateful to have done that and with so many different tweaks (original, complete, revised, hip-hop and the updated Grizabella look). Whatever we add, tweak or subtract, it’s to make the show better than ever. Therefore, it’s safe to say that we are presenting the perfected version of it.
What did you know about Waitress the Musical before booking the role of Jenna and what was she like to play?
I’ve always been a fan of Sara Bareilles but I knew little about the musical, I’ve only seen the movie. When I got the offer to play Jenna in the international premiere of Waitress, I immediately immersed myself in the music realising that I’ll get to sing one of the best scores ever. Naturally, I was extremely ecstatic. The whole process was pure joy. I tried to portray her as truthfully as possible and gave it my own spin on Jenna musically.
In 2004, you performed for the Queen and the Royal Family as Fantine in the Les Misérables Concert, how was it performing at Windsor Castle?
It was a surreal experience. Cameron Mackintosh really went all out for this special concert. We had our performance in the West End plus a special celebration post show at the Waterloo Chamber in Windsor Castle. I remember I had to redo my costume and en route to the Castle in a special bus for the cast complete with a police convoy. It was a great experience performing for the Queen, the Royal Family and then-France president Jacques Chirac and other invited dignitaries. When it was time to meet the Queen, we had the necessary protocols down pat. She greeted us individually with Cameron introducing me to her. I remember two things, how ethereal she looked and the pink lipstick stain on her teeth.
Having started your theatre career in the West End production of Miss Saigon, do you have any favourite memories of playing Kim at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and your time playing her since?
I had just turned seventeen years old, I auditioned for Miss Saigon at an open call in Manila and lied about my age in the registrations, because they were only looking for eighteen year old girls and above at the time, with very much hesitation they still let me through. During the audition, and having no experience in theatre or the performing arts, I remember there was this man just staring at me intently from the panel table, almost examining my every move. Later on, I realised that it was Nicholas Hytner, the director of the show, and that he was eyeing me for the role. That raw interpretation I gave during the audition landed me the lead role of Kim. I flew to London with my mum as my chaperone, performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and made my West End debut at seventeen years old.
Over the years of performing on stage, you’ve been part of many productions including Jesus Christ Superstar, RENT and The Sound of Music, can you say about working on some of them?
I was very lucky to have been chosen by Andrew Lloyd Webber for Mary Magdalene in the original West End revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. The staging and period costumes emanating quite a biblical version which was, I believe, ALW’s vision/version of the musical. We had a massive multi-level set designed by John Napier and complete with a beautiful rain finale. Singing with Steve Balsamo as Jesus in every show was a dream.
We toured an English version of RENT in European cities and, even though I knew the music was not my typical material as I am used to the classic musical, I had fun being in the show and appreciating it the more I understood and performed those famous songs that resonated with younger audiences at that time.
The Sound of Music was my second musical in Manila having performed West Side Story five years prior and both roles being named Maria. It was the first musical played at this new theatre in Manila equipped with massive LED panels and it was the theatrical event of the year with full houses and extended runs. I had a great time performing with different sets of Captains and Von Trapp children in the cast.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch?
We attended the Back to the Future opening night in the West End and it was mind-blowing. Having grown up to the movie trilogy, it’s currently my favourite show.
On screen, you play Maya in Call Me Tita, what is the show about and what is she like to play?
In the Philippines, we see independent, empowered and successful women of a certain age as “Tita” which is a direct translation to “Aunt”. The series is about five contrasting women that are all best friends as they navigate through their intertwined lives in Manila. My character Maya is a lawyer and projected as the most straightforward in the group but her mask slowly peels off revealing layers of secrets as we progress in the series. It was truly special because the roles of the Titas are all written specifically for us. Little did we know it was going to be as successful and well-received as it was. It ended up playing on both digital streaming and national TV. COVID-19 halted all productions back home whilst we were halfway through filming the second season.
What can you tell us about the award-winning film Ang Larawan/The Portrait which saw you win a number of awards for your portrayal of Candida Marasigan?
Ang Larawan/The Portrait is a musical film based on the stage play, Larawan which in turn was based on the 1950 literary play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino by national artist Nick Joaquin. The film takes place in 1941 just before World War II in a mansion in Manila and explores the many aspects of Philippine high society. The story revolves around the Marasigan sisters, Candida (the role I portrayed) and Paula, and their painter father Don Lorenzo Marasigan who was experiencing drought artistically. He refused to sell their house and an infamous painting inside it. The theme focuses on family conflict, artistic integrity vs commerce and the amalgamation of old Filipino identity and cultural character with the arrival of contemporary and Western ideals. Filipinos regard it as our national play and it’s a project that will outlive most of us and I feel honoured to have done this musical film.
During the pandemic, you were in The Show Must Go On documentary, what was this like?
We were informed of the documentary early on in the contract so the filming started prior to us flying to South Korea for the 40th Anniversary Tour of CATS. We did a lot of self-filming during our individual quarantines as requested by the film producer. We only met the director and film crew once we got out and it was non-stop filming to document how Koreans kept theatre alive during one of the most challenging of times in theatre history. The filmmakers must’ve gathered hours and hours of footage and we had no idea what was going to be included in the final cut or the direction it was headed towards. We opened with socially distanced audiences following local government protocols and at one point the only performing production in the whole world. This is all chronicled in this new documentary The Show Must Go On directed and produced by Sammi Cannold. The documentary film would later on premiere at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on August 9th, 2021 with a worldwide release soon to be announced.
Where does your love of performing come from and is it something you always wanted to do?
I started singing and acting in front of my family without any formal training and I am extremely lucky to have the professional experience at such an early age. Everything I know about what I do now is all based on experience and the creative people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working. I love doing the world tours and getting to travel, learning new cultures, meeting different performers, and musical fans all over the world.
What’s it like being involved with cast recordings and releasing your own albums?
I’m always grateful to have had these opportunities – being part of these cast recordings and having mementos of roles I have played that are there for posterity. I am always surprised with the mileage these albums got, reaching musical theatre fans all over the world. When I was in South Korea, there were a number of times when I was asked to sign Miss Saigon and Jesus Christ Superstar CD albums, both of which I recorded way back in the 90s.
I recorded a couple of pop albums back home and it was fun finding music that speaks my personality. I am very particular with the lyrics as I try to avoid clichéd love songs and themes. The same goes with filming the music videos. I prefer to collaborate with the director and talk about how a woman should be portrayed as strong and independent.
Are you able to say what plans you have for the upcoming months?
I am continuing the extension of CATS in Taiwan which runs for six weeks and reopening South Pacific for the limited West End run. Both are scheduled for 2022.
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