From Kim to Engineer: Joanna Ampil still breaking glass ceilings 30 years later | Inquirer Entertainment

From Kim to Engineer: Joanna Ampil still breaking glass ceilings 30 years later

By: - Entertainment Editor
/ 12:15 AM September 08, 2023

Joanna Ampil

Ampil (right) as Mary Magdalene opposite Steve Balsamo in “Jesus Christ Superstar” PHOTO BY MIRRORPIX

When the COVID-19 crisis began rearing its ugly head in the first quarter of 2020, it certainly felt like time stood still. And it didn’t take long before the contagion literally stopped the whole world in its heretofore frenzied tracks.

But not even the stifling reach of the pandemic could stop Filipino West End star Joanna Ampil from doing what she does best—performing.


Indeed, while we were all thrust into obligatory moments of introspection and extended isolation for much of 2020 and the year that followed, Joanna was in South Korea playing Grizabella in the 40th anniversary tour of “Cats” and, around the same period, also performed in “Phantom of the Opera”—the only theater productions in the whole world that continued to perform at the height of the pandemic! But that’s par for the course for one of West End’s most prolific stars.



Joanna Ampil

As Grizabella in “Cats” PHOTO BY S&CO

“We wore masks with feline make-up drawn on them every time we would interact with the audience. Then, we would take them off once we were back onstage,” the singer-actress told Inquirer Entertainment in a one-on-one interview arranged by the Corporate Communications Division of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) last Monday. “Moreover, everybody in the audience was also masked up and socially distanced, so there was no danger of transmission at all.”

“But performing in that iteration of ‘Cats’ during the pandemic happened by accident. I just got lucky because they booked me [to do the shows] prior to the lockdown … before all the restrictions became so heightened.

“So even I wasn’t sure whether it was going to happen or not. But they carried on with it because they wanted theater to stay alive, despite what was going on in the world. That whole thing was documented by Apple TV while the show was running.”

By Joanna’s own admission, the production team’s decision to live by the age-old theater adage, “The show must go on,” was a brave and bold move.

There were risks involved, but she and her peers soldiered on, the actress recounted, “At the time, people were holed up at home, and I know some people in theater who were going crazy—there were even some who committed suicide—because they were depressed. And one of the reasons why we wanted to keep theater going was for those people … to prove that it could be done.”

Breaking norms

Joanna Ampil


Be that as it may, what’s even clearer now is the fact that Joanna has been breaking norms and defying conventions ever since she clinched the role of Kim in “Miss Saigon”—back when she was just an inexperienced teenage actress.


But given her consistency thereafter, we truly doubt if all that success could only be attributed to “just plain luck,” since Joanna has been hopscotching from one high-profile production to another—with not a single gap year in her prodigious body of work since 1993.

The long list includes coveted roles in “Les Miserables” (as Fantine and Eponine), “Jesus Christ Superstar” (Mary Magdalene), “Rent” (Mimi), “Avenue Q” (Christmas Eve), “Hair” (Sheila Franklin), “South Pacific” (Bloody Mary) and a string of star turns (“The Bridges of Madison County,” “Waitress,” “Sound of Music,” etc.) in Manila.


As Fantine in “Les Miserables” PHOTO BY MICHAEL LE POER TRENCH

Recently, Joanna pulled off another casting coup when she became the very first actress to essay the role of The Engineer in a reimagined version of “Miss Saigon”—a coming-full-circle moment for the actress who bagged the role of Kim when she was only 17.

Career milestone

In between the aforementioned projects, she also acted in the film version of the “Ang Larawan” musical and ended up winning many best actress awards, including an Urian, recorded albums for Viva (“Joanna Ampil”) and Sony (“Try Love”), and appeared in the teleseryes, “Call Me Tita” and “Flower of Evil.”


As Candida Marasigan in “Ang Larawan” PHOTO BY JOJIT LORENZO

Would that other theater practitioners could be as “lucky” as Joanna—who, we noted, will also be celebrating her 30th year in theater this year!

“Oh, my age is showing (laughs)!” the actress quipped when we reminded her about that enviable career milestone.

This week, Joanna is back in the country to perform in “Anywhere We Sing is Home: The CCP’s 54th Anniversary Gala” at Samsung Performing Arts Center on Saturday (at 8 p.m.) and Sunday (3 p.m.).

Directed by Floy Quintos with musical direction by National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, the concert also features Aicelle Santos-Zambrano, Gerald Santos, Sheila Francisco, Gab Pangilinan, Reb Atadero and Arman Ferrer, with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Toma Cayabyab. (Get your tickets at Ticketworld, or email [email protected] for group discounts.)

The interview also allowed us to catch up with Joanna’s husband, scenographer Faust Peneyra, whom we acted with in a Dulaang UP play—Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Butterfly’s Evil Spell”—20 years ago! What a small world, indeed.

Another thing that the pandemic couldn’t run roughshod over was Joanna and Faust’s wedding in February 2020—barely a few weeks before the start of the lockdowns.

‘All about giving back’

Joanna Ampil

Joanna Ampil to perform in “Anywhere We Sing Is Home: The CCP’s 54th Anniversary Gala” tomorrow and on Sunday —JC INOCIAN/contributor

“We were scheduled to get married in Vancouver in March 2020, because it would be easier for my parents and siblings to get there,” she recalled. “But for some reason, we couldn’t get the dates we wanted, so we ended up doing it a month earlier (laughs). And we were lucky it worked out that way.”

What prompted her to do “Anywhere We Sing is Home”?

“It’s all about giving back,” she mused. “There will always be something special about performing for Filipinos … because they know where you’re coming from and what your ‘hugot’ is.

“More than anything, it’s nice to reconnect with your roots. Plus, most of my relatives still live there, so it’s wonderful to be in a show they can see me in. Noel (Ferrer, her go-getting manager and inveterate arts advocate) and I managed to find a window when I could come home and do this. So, it’s perfect timing talaga.”

Our Q&A with Joanna:

Which of her many roles has resonated with her the most?

Today, it’s The Engineer… because we made history there. It’s the first female Engineer, we had a black Chris and a black Ellen. We changed some lyrics in the show to reflect all that, with the approval of [producer] Cameron MacIntosh and the original team of course.

The role was a huge challenge and a life-changer for me because, in a way, I created it from scratch … because no one has ever done it that way. So a lot of research went into it. We wanted to champion women empowerment and do this version from an Asian perspective. We had a lot of people in the creative team who are of East and Southeast Asian descent. It’s truly special.

Scene from the reimagined 2023 version of "Miss Saigon"

Scene from the reimagined 2023 version of “Miss Saigon” PHOTO BY JOHANN PERSSON

How did you tweak the backstory of The Engineer?

I needed to create something new because I couldn’t fit into the mold of the male Engineer. For example, I had to have a different American Dream—this time, it’s not about the Cadillac, because this Engineer is a show girl.

She’s a producer, an entrepreneur … she loves anything flamboyant, something that has to do with excessive money. So, we recreated the Marilyn Monroe transformation onstage … because she wants to be in Hollywood—it’s all those elements all rolled into one number!

That’s why she creates Dreamland, that whole competition, because her dream is to produce a show in Las Vegas and be the star. That’s nothing like a male Engineer would probably want. That’s my Engineer. It’s all about being a leader.

It’s also about sisterhood. It’s not that I’m discounting the previous interpretation at all. But it’s going to change somehow because this Engineer sees something in Kim that is more reflective of her own story.

Even our version of Kim has changed—she’s spicier, more independent and isn’t timid. She doesn’t need anyone telling her what to do. It’s a modern-day retelling of that story.

Joanna Ampil

As The Engineer in the reimagined 2023 version of “Miss Saigon” —JOHANN PERSSON/CONTRIBUTOR

How different is the satisfaction you get from doing theater compared to appearing in movies or drama series and recording?

The only thing that changes is your audience. Because you have a camera for the movies and anything that is filmed. And you have the microphone for recording. But the truth is always the same. So, you can either scale down your performance or bring it up. Sometimes, it’s all about the eyes.

You’re marking your 30-year milestone this year. How did you evolve from the time you first played Kim to now that you’ve become the very first female Engineer?

Buking ang age (laughs)! But yeah, I’m definitely on my third decade now. As a performer, because you have more experience in life, you can apply so much more of what you’ve learned to your portrayal. I suppose I listen more now as opposed to before, when I always wanted to be heard.

But don’t you think you make “being successful” look easy?


As Jenna in “Waitress” PHOTO BY RAYMUND ISAAC

You know, I don’t want to sound like I’m taking things for granted … because I never do. And I know that it takes a lot for some people to achieve something big. But while some things did come easily for me, I also think that luck had something to do with it.

That’s why I completely understand when my husband constantly reminds me about this, so I’m very grateful for what I have. That’s precisely why I feel the need to give back. It also doesn’t hurt that my mom prays a lot for me as well.

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After your success with all those roles, what else do you want to do?

Right this minute? My body is screaming for rest (laughs)!

TAGS: Joanna Ampil

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