overseas Filipinos

[Only IN Hollywood] Vina Morales to debut on Broadway, and other Fil-Am showbiz highlights

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Vina Morales to debut on Broadway, and other Fil-Am showbiz highlights
'I am excited to be part of the Here Lies Love family and I can’t wait to perform for all of you,' Vina says

LOS ANGELES, USA – Last week’s announcement that Vina Morales is stepping in for Lea Salonga as Aurora Aquino in the ongoing Broadway show, Here Lies Love, made quite a splash.

There was speculation that Sharon Cuneta or Regine Velasquez would be taking over the special guest role once Lea steps down. This is a plum part in the historic, first-ever all-Filipino cast on the Great White Way (Is that nickname still being used? Although the term was coined in the early 1900s to refer to the dazzling lights on the marquees, not for white identity).

The choice of Vina, who will make her Broadway debut, surprised some but thrilled her many fans.

The singer-actress said in a statement released by the production team behind David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s disco-infused musical about the rise and fall of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos (Arielle Jacobs and Jose Llana, respectively): “To be able to perform on Broadway is a dream come true for any artist! I am grateful to ‘Coach Lea’ Salonga for guiding me along the way. You’re the best, Lea! I am excited to be part of the Here Lies Love family and I can’t wait to perform for all of you!”

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VINA. Vina Morales makes her Broadway debut as Aurora Aquino on ‘Here Lies Love.’ File photo

Alex Timbers, who directed the original Off-Broadway production and the succeeding ones, including those in the UK’s National Theatre and the current incarnation at the Broadway Theatre, said in the same statement, “David Byrne and I were first introduced to Vina’s extraordinary talents over 10 years ago in Manila when we were casting Here Lies Love’s National Theatre production.”

“It’s an exciting, full-circle moment to have her join us now on Broadway; and an honor to introduce her, in this show-stopping role, to our incredible audiences.”

It was always the production’s plan to cast various guest stars in the role of the mother of Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora) to showcase the Philippines’ pool of terrific talent.

As the Aquino matriarch, Lea unsurprisingly sang her role’s sole number, “Just Ask the Flowers,” with gravitas, intensity, and commanding stage presence. Our national pride, who is one of the show’s producers, extended her special guest appearance – starting early on July 11 (instead of July 5) and ending a week later (from August 13 to 19).

LEA. Lea Salonga had a successful run as Aurora Aquino on ‘Here Lies Love.’ Courtesy of ‘Here Lies Love’

On Vina stepping in, Lea was quoted by the production as saying, “I am so excited to share the news that my friend Vina Morales will be joining our fabulous all-Filipino company in Here Lies Love! So talented and lovely, but most of all, so kind. She will be a wonderful addition to our cast!”

Vina, who began as a child actress and rose to enjoy acting and musical careers (numerous concert tours and 14 albums to her name), starred as Sherrie in Manila’s production of Rock of Ages. She steps onto a Broadway stage for the first time on September 22 and finishes her limited guest engagement on October 22.

In the meantime, cast member Reanne Acasio, who played Aurora before Lea took over, steps back into the role until Vina comes in.

Tapping a new actress to play Aurora for a month or so is a good idea. It stirs excitement and interest.

My two cents’ worth for the next actresses to play Aurora: Joanna Ampil, the aforementioned Regine Velasquez, and Rachel Alejandro. How about it, Here Lies Love team?

Melody Butiu is also in the cast as Estrella Cumpas, Imelda’s yaya (nanny) and childhood friend who was abandoned as the woman who became the First Lady rose to power.

The cast includes, Aaron J. Albano, Moses Villarama, Jasmine Forsberg, Jaygee Macapugay, Julia Abueva, Renée Albulario, Aaron Alcaraz, Carol Angeli, Nathan Angelo, Kristina Doucette, Roy Flores, Timothy Matthew Flores, Sarah Kay, Jeigh Madjus, Aaron “AJ” Mercado, Geena Quintos, Shea Renne, Angelo Soriano, and Danielle Troiano.

Jake Macapagal
JAKE. Jake Macapagal’s international career hits another high with his co-starring role in Paramount+’s ‘No Escape.’ Contributed photo

Without much fanfare, Jake Macapagal is enjoying an international career. Since gaining overseas recognition in Sean Ellis’ acclaimed Metro Manila (2013), for which he earned a British Independent Film Award nomination for Most Promising Newcomer, Jake starred in Randal Kamradt’s The Monsters Without, Ben Rekhi’s Watch List, and Joko Anwar and Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Halfworlds.

Now, the actor is co-starring in Paramount Plus’ limited series No Escape (not to be confused with the films of the same title released in 2020, 2015, and 1994).

Based on Lucy Clarke’s The BlueNo Escape was directed by Hans Herbots and Kasia Adamik. Set in the Philippines and Australia and filmed in 2022, the thriller is premised on the discovery of a yacht adrift in the ocean, with no one on board. Scribbled in blood on a wall is: “I confess.”

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THRILLER. ‘No Escape,’ set in the Philippines and Australia, casts Jake Macapagal as Colonel Justin Reyes. Courtesy of Paramount+.

Jake plays Colonel Justin Reyes, who leads the police investigation to determine what could have happened. He joins a cast made up mostly of European and Australian actors, including Abigail Lawrie, 2021 BAFTA best actress – television winner (Tin Star), Rhianne Barreto, Colette Dalal Tchantcho, Sean Keenan, and Jay Ryan.

Starting in musical theater in his teens, Jake became part of the so-called Miss Saigon “cottage industry” in the Philippines – talents who performed in productions of the Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil musical in various countries. In Jake’s case, he toured with a Miss Saigon production in Germany and lived there for almost eight years.

He went on to study film acting in Australia. Upon his return to the Philippines, Jake starred in films including Metro Manila, which won the 2013 Best British Independent Film Award, among other honors; Erik Matti’s Rabid; and Paolo Herras’ Buhay Habangbuhay.

Diana Lee Inosanto
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PLUM ROLE. The goddaughter of legend Bruce Lee and daughter of martial arts icon Dan Inosanto, Diana Lee Inosanto expands her Lady Morgan character in ‘Star Wars: Ahsoka.’ Courtesy of Disney+

Diana Lee Inosanto, who was the goddaughter of the late Bruce Lee (how many can call the legend as “my ninong?”), and the daughter of another icon, Dan Inosanto, noted Filipino-American martial arts veteran (many Hollywood actors trained with him for roles), gets her biggest television acting break in Disney Plus’ Star Wars: Ahsoka.

The multi-hyphenate – she’s an actress-director-stuntwoman-martial artist-author – who made her first appearance as Morgan Elsbeth or Lady Morgan in a 2020 episode of The Mandalorian, gets to expand her character in Ahsoka.

Starring Rosario Dawson in the title role, the Lucasfilm miniseries which premieres this week on Disney Plus was created and written by David Filoni, who also executive produces, along with Jon Favreau and Kathleen Kennedy, among others. Set after the fall of the Empire, Ahsoka is part of the Star Wars franchise and is a spin-off from The Mandalorian.

DIANA. Filipino-American Diana Lee Inosanto costars as Lady Morgan Elsbeth in Disney+’s ‘Star Wars: Ahsoka.’ Courtesy of Disney+

Entertainment Weekly (EW), tapping its Star Wars podcast Dagobah Dispatch, quoted Diana as saying, “When I found out that they were going expand her character (Morgan), I was just over the moon about this. I just couldn’t believe how the planets and the stars aligned. And to be able to work with such a magnificent cast and to grow as an actress and feel that energy, it’s a dream come true.”

The cast, aside from Rosario, also features Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Mary Elisabeth Winstead, the late Ray Stevenson, Ivanna Sakhno, Lars Mikkelsen, and Eman Esfandi. Watching Ray, who died last May – he was only 58 – in his scenes in Ahsoka was a poignant experience. What a loss.

EW also quoted Diana recalling two special people on set watching her and Rosario in their big fight scene in The Mandalorian – no less than the brilliant mind behind Star Wars, George Lucas, and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy.

Diana recounted in the EW piece: “They’re heroes of mine. They’re trailblazers. So when (The Mandalorian creator) Jon Favreau introduced me to them, I was like, oh my goodness. It was such an honor. You have the most creative minds that were there that day, (including) Jon and Dave (Filoni), and it was just amazing. And then to do this beautiful combative dance with Rosario, I mean, what a beautiful moment and what a way to bond with her.”

Morgan is the perfect role for Diana, whose fight and stunt choreography experience led her to help actors prepare for their action roles, from Melissa McCarthy, to Aaron Eckhart, to Sarah Michelle Gellar (for TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), as well as perform stunts herself in titles such as Star Trek: Enterprise and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Watching Diana in the first two episodes of Ahsoka in a screening (being surrounded by Star Wars fans in full costumes and make-up honoring their favorite characters was an experience) at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, I was glad to see her command the screen as an actress.

Diana has extensive credits as a stuntwoman and fight choreographer so directing, writing, and starring in 2008’s The Sensei was a milestone for her.

Off the set, she is an activist for various causes, including the campaigns to stop hate incidents against Asian Americans and the push for the Congressional Medal Bill for FilAm WWII veterans.

Diana collaborated with her adult autistic son, illustrator SG Inosanto, to write a children’s book on how she, as a young mother, tried to understand the quirky behavior of SG when he was four years old.

Jazzmopolitan

I’ve been to quite a number of shows at the prestigious Walt Disney Concert Hall but I have to say this: the recent Jazzmopolitan was one of the best I have experienced in that downtown Los Angeles architectural landmark by Frank Gehry.

Hearing the voices and instruments of four Filipino Americans – Michael Paulo, Melissa Morgan, Chris Chatman and Tia Carrere – plus Take 6 and Peter White in one of the most acoustically superior concert halls in the world was a musical experience I will never forget.

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The set of saxman Michael was perfection by itself. Seated there in the center of that magnificent wood-paneled theater, I was instantly transported by Michael’s artistry to a musical high, uplifted by the warm, crystal-clear, exhilarating notes from his sax as he played tunes like “Bumpin’,” “One Passion,” and “My Heart and Soul.”

I experienced what the finest artists can deliver – almost like an out-of-body experience, as I reveled in the smooth yet passion-imbued music – alternately wailing, teasing, playful, seductive, soulful, plaintive – being coaxed by Michael from his gleaming gold instrument.

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BRAVO. Bravo to saxman Michael Paulo whose set was perfection by itself! Hearing Michael’s warm, crystal-clear, exhilarating notes from his sax in the acoustically superior Walt Disney Concert Hall was a treat. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Michael’s band was equally top-rate – Tateng Katindig, keyboards (lead for Chris and Melissa), Kimo Cornwell (lead for Peter and Tia and Daniel Ho), Dave Inamine (bass), Fred Schreuders (guitar), and Land Richards (drums).

Next was Melissa Morgan, cool and enchanting as a jazz chanteuse with her witty rendering of the lyrics of such chestnuts as “It Might as Well Be Spring,” “My Gentleman Friend,” and “Mood Indigo.” A statuesque and charmingly enigmatic presence onstage, Melissa prompted me to wonder – where has she been all this time?

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MELISSA AND MICHAEL. Statuesque Melissa Morgan, with Michael Paulo, enchanted with her witty rendering of jazz chestnuts. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Michael’s set was a tough act to follow but guitarist Peter White surprised with a performance that was just as compelling, complemented by his showmanship and disarming stage persona.

Peter chucked the innocuous “smooth jazz” label with his lively, passionate renditions of “Promenade/Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “Groovin’”/“Downtown,” “How Deep Is Your Love” (on acoustic guitar), and “San Diego/Bueno Fun” (with snippets of the “James Bond Theme Song” and “Get Up, Stand Up”).

Hearing Peter’s guitar licks in that exquisite-sounding magnificent hall was a divine musical treat.

The second half began with Chris Chatman who proudly calls himself “Blackapino” and delivered a double dose of Black and Filipino soul with “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” “For All We Know,” and “What You Won’t Do for Love.” Blessed with charisma, Chris also made me think: where has he been all this time?

CHRIS AND MICHAEL. ‘Jazzmopolitan’s’ talented discovery Chris Chatman, who proudly calls himself a ‘Blackapino,’ with Michael Paulo. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Tia Carrere and her Hawaiian music collaborator, slack-key guitarist Daniel Ho, soothed the audience with their renditions of “He Aloha Mele,” “Aloha ‘Oe,” and “I’m Still Here.” Tia, also statuesque (prompting Michael to quip that it’s a night of towering Fil-Am women), was especially powerful in that last song, an anthem about overcoming vicissitudes, especially the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

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TIA AND DANIEL. Tia Carrere and Daniel Ho soothed the audience with their numbers. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Take 6 capped the electrifying evening with their spirited performance, delivered in their trademark a cappella style, of such classics as “Back in Love  Again,” “Windmills of Your Mind,” “Stand by Me,” and “Got to Get You into My Life.” The sextet delivered a rousing ending with their harmonious blending as they served an abundance of R&B, soul, blues and gospel.

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TAKE 6. Take 6 capped the electrifying evening with their spirited performance of R&B, soul, pop, and gospel classics, delivered in their trademark a cappella style. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

What a night it was! The show’s title may be Jazzmopolitan but it was a terrifically eclectic evening marking the Disney Hall debuts of Michael, Melissa, Chris, and Tia, and made more unforgettable by Take 6 and Peter White.

Bravo and mabuhay to talent impresario Ted Benito and his fellow producer, Rex Sampaga! Jazzmopolitan 2, please. – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.