Joanna Ampil 'terrified' to play Engineer in 'Miss Saigon'

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Sep 27 2022 01:11 PM

Joanna Ampil will be the first woman to play The Engineer in 'Miss Saigon.' JC Inocian
Joanna Ampil will be the first woman to play The Engineer in 'Miss Saigon.' JC Inocian

“Honestly, I’m terrified.”

That was what theater, film and TV actress Joanna Ampil readily told ABS-CBN News when asked about how she felt returning to “Miss Saigon” next year. The reaction was understandable, since Ampil gave her nod to the gender-bending role as The Engineer.

For the first time, The Engineer will be played by a female lead in the reimagined staging of the well-loved musical that premiered in the UK in 1989, with the role of Kim originated by Lea Salonga.

It will be the first time for Ampil to portray a male role onstage. She is also the first female to play The Engineer in “Miss Saigon.”

“At the same time, I’m excited to immerse myself in the role,” Ampil said about The Engineer. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but I cannot wait to get all my creative juices flowing.

“I am beyond thrilled to be the first woman to play the role of The Engineer in this exhilarating reimagination of this most-beloved musical which is so close to my heart.”

With Ampil in the role, The Engineer will be somewhat like a new character for the musical, with a different background and backstory. Undoubtedly, she is setting a precedent.

“The role of The Engineer is reimagined as a woman and will be recreated from scratch,” she said. “So it’s not as if I’ll be trying to fit into the mold of what was done before.

“It’s the first non-replica production seen through a different perspective and with an Asian director [Anthony Lau]. The look will be completely different from what people know of ‘Miss Saigon’ in the past.

“Therefore, I never hesitated when asked if I was interested in playing the part. It’s not just about the entertainment value, but also the issue of representation.”

The 2023 “Miss Saigon” will be staged at the world-famous and historic The Crucible Theatre, an iconic landmark with its distinctive stage in the Sheffield area. The musical is slated to open in summer of 2023.

At the helm is Sheffield artistic director Robert Hastie, with associate artistic director Anthony Lau.
Not surprisingly, Ampil agreed to be in the new production even without knowing what it actually was.

“A couple of weeks ago, when I was in London having our holiday break from ‘South Pacific,’ I received an email from my agent asking for my availability for certain dates. I was also asked if I’d be willing to have a meeting with the artistic directors of Sheffield Theatres for a show they’ll be doing next year.

“The title of the show was embargoed due to sensitive negotiations, but I said yes in a heartbeat as I know how reputable that theater company is and to have the opportunity to perform at the historic The Crucible Theatre is a big deal.

“The theater is home to world-class productions such as the very recent and very successful ‘Life of Pi,’ which I saw before all these happened. The best show I’ve seen this year!”

Ampil was initially “very confused” when Lau broke the news to her that the show they wanted her to do was “Miss Saigon.” It took quite a while for the news to sink in for her.

“Surely, he wasn’t thinking of me as Kim,” Ampil initially thought. “So in my head, I was like, ‘Are you creating a new role in it like, a mother?’ Then, he immediately followed it by, ‘We want you for the role of The Engineer.’

“He asked me if I have any concerns and I said, my biggest worry then was – this has to be a reimagined ‘Miss Saigon.’ It will need an update and an Asian director’s perspective. It was a relief to know that Anthony, whose ancestry is from Hong Kong, is co-directing the show with Rob Hastie.”

Ampil had just turned 17 when she got through an open call audition for “Miss Saigon” in 1993.

“Back then, they were looking for 18 year old girls for the role of Kim in Manila,” she recalled. “After a series of call-backs, I landed the role and immediately moved to London with my mother. As a teenager, It was my professional, theatrical and West End debut rolled into one.

“To have played Kim in different productions, countless of times and to have had my first taste of recording with The Complete International Symphonic Recording of the show, it feels like a full circle moment to pave the way for this historical gender-bending casting. "

This time, essaying the role of The Engineer brings to mind the actors whom Ampil shared the stage with when she played Kim in “Miss Saigon.”

“Cocoy Laurel in Australia was just wonderful on and off stage,” she shared. “Kevin Grey who’s with me in The Complete Symphonic Recording sounded amazing and I wish I’d seen him do it.

“My personal favorite to this day, whom I truly admire, is Jon Jon Briones. We worked together when the show was still at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London.”
Presently, Ampil is touring with the UK cast of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” where she portrays Bloody Mary, a “wonderful” role to play for her.

“Once again, ‘South Pacific’ is another reimagined show where representation is at its finest,” Ampil said. “The show opens with Liat’s solo dance with me humming a redevelopment of the song ‘Younger than Springtime.’

“We also gave a new flavor to ‘Happy Talk,’ with a new arrangement that fits in with mood of the scene which is more somber and darker laced, with urgency and desperation.”

The reimagined version of “South Pacific” debuted at the Chichester Festival Theater in the UK last year. It was the first musical that opened onstage this pandemic.

“I’m proud to say that we were the only show that never had to close or cancel a show because of the strict protocols that were put in place that everyone had to comply with,” Ampil pointed out.

“South Pacific” was undoubtedly a success and was given five stars by critics. “As a result, the production had a life after Chichester, including its West End transfer,” Ampil beamed.

The most challenging part in portraying Bloody Mary in “South Pacific,” given the pandemic situation worldwide, was clear right from the start Ampil sauntered into the musical stage. Apparently, “South Pacific” started the new normal in theater in the UK.

“Daniel Evans and Ann Yee’s vision was very clear from the beginning that the staging will be on the islanders’ perspective,” Ampil said. “Hence, opening the show with Liat and myself.

“The challenging part is showcasing the layers of the character from defining the constructed Bloody Mary to eventually deconstructing her from being an entrepreneur, leader and a source of entertainment. 

“Another invention and addition to the show is the deconstruction, where we see Bloody Mary strip off her layers, literally wiping off her mask, entrepreneurial and loud Bloody Mary, to show her human side and the amount of sacrifice she is willing to give so that her daughter can have a better future.”

After “South Pacific,” Ampil will go back to South Korea to reprise Grizabella in “Cats.” Early next year, she starts rehearsals for “Miss Saigon” in Sheffield. 
To date, Ampil still finds it hard to zero in on a favorite role that was most memorable to her. “That is one of those tough questions, like asking to choose who your favorite child is,” she maintained. “I tend to become intimate with each role I portray.

“All of them have been memorable and each one I’ve fallen in love with. But if I must, Maria in ‘The Sound of Music,’ staged in Manila, was memorable. My entire family flew in from abroad came to watch me in it.

“Same goes with ‘Cats’ when it came to Manila just before the pandemic. The family also flew in to watch and I got engaged during the last day.”

On February 20, 2020, Ampil and scenographer Faust Peneyra tied the knot in a simple ceremony in Vancouver, Canada – one of the many couples who opted to mark that important ceremony on that once-in-a-lifetime date.

“Every role given to me, may it be something I’ve done before or a new one is a bonus,” admitted Ampil. “I’m happiest when I take on roles that challenge my knowledge or re-educate me. Something that represents.

“At the end of the day, we want to use this platform to ignite conversations and to keep that going.”

In the local front, Ampil, who is best remembered for her award-winning role in Loy Arcenas’ “Larawan” in 2017, wants to do another film, when the right project comes her way.

“Anything to do another masterpiece, that will enrich and contribute to our industry,” she asserted. 

Before she left for the UK last year, Ampil taped for “Flower of Evil,” where she plays the mother of Piolo Pascual’s character. The Tagalog adaptation of the South Korean series now airs on the Kapamilya Channel.

Despite her loaded schedule, Ampil never complains about it. “My work is a joy,” she said. “It never feels like work. I’m lucky to married to someone who’s smart and also very creative and who understands everything I do.”

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