Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.
Ma-Anne Dionisio is allergic to cats. How ironic, since she’s appearing in the new Canadian production of Cats, playing perhaps the most recognizable cat in the world: Grizabella the Glamour Cat, who sings the signature song “Memory.” Mind you, this isn’t the first or only time she’s had to inhabit a foreign body. The role that catapulted the then-unknown 19-year-old Dionisio to stardom was as Kim the reluctant Vietnamese prostitute in the original Canadian production of Miss Saigon in 1993, an iconic role she’s gone on to play internationally – including at London’s West End – and on which she has left an indelible mark.
In between, there have been other “unlikely” roles: Maria in West Side Story, Eponine inLes Misérables, Bertrande in Martin Guerre,Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar and Sandy in Grease. And while none of these roles is feline, they’re not typically Asian, either, making them perhaps just as “alien” for the Manila-born Dionisio to embody. When she was in Toronto reprising the role of Kim in the 2010 Canadian revival ofMiss Saigon, I asked Dionisio about being cast in these roles. “I have been blessed,” she said, “by those who practise non-traditional casting. I am grateful for all those opportunities that have been given to me because I’ve learned so much from them.” She then added, ” I was cast in Evita once, but I ended up not doing the show and doing a production of Les Misérables instead.”
Certainly, vocally, she is stronger than ever. Let’s remember, she fell into the profession by happy coincidence. While a student at the University of Manitoba with aspirations in dentistry(!), she was seen by the “right” someone while performing in the single televised broadcast of Experience Canada, flown to Toronto to audition for Miss Saigon, and the rest is theatre history. She’s been working nonstop ever since. In fact, she is so much in demand that she once worked in two West-End productions, Martin Guerre and Miss Saigon simultaneously. “It was an amazing and extraordinary learning experience,” she recalls. “Hard work but at the same time, it was refreshing to be able to play two different characters in the same work week, sometimes in the same work day.”
Since she was last in Toronto, she has been dividing her time between workshop productions, notably the Broadway-bound Allegiance, and concert-work in Europe. How has she been able to meet these consistently challenging vocal demands while expertly balancing her familial duties (she has 3 children, 2 sons and one daughter )? “I think the best advice I ever got from anyone in this business came from one of my first directors, Mitchell Lemsky. The first time I did Miss Saigon I would get anxiety and major panic attacks about my voice, and I remember him saying that if I focused on telling the story, no one is going to notice that one bum note.”
Interestingly, playing Grizabella is Dionisio’s introduction to Cats. She had never seen the show before. No doubt she will tell Grizabella’s story as compellingly as her other roles. Back in Toronto after 28 years, Cats, directed by Dave Campbell and choregraphed by Gino Berti, officially opens on June 11 for an indefinite run at the Panasonic Theatre. Experience it with your children.
© 2013 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya