Fil-Am actor joins Whitney, Brandy on ABC's 'Cinderella'

ON Nov. 2 at 7 p.m., the ABC television network will air an all new, updated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella." It will be one of the highlights of the 1997-98 season of "The Wonderful World of Disney" series Sunday evenings on ABC.

This time the timeless story of Cinderella has an all-star, multi-ethnic cast led by Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, Brandy as Cinderella, Whoopie Goldberg as Queen Constantina, Jason Alexander as Lionel, the steward, Bernadette Peters as the stepmother, and Natalie Desselle and Veanne Cox as the stepsisters.

Of interest to Filipino-Americans is the fact that one of them is playing the Prince. He is Paolo Montalban of Jersey City. The name may not ring too many bells (yet) but Paolo has considerable experience in musical theater since his high school years in Jersey City's St. Peter's Prep School where he starred in "Oliver," and later, in national tours of hit musicals like "Man of La Mancha."

Paolo's most recent stage outing was in the current production of "The King & I," as an understudy for the role of Lun Tha which coincidentally, was also played by another Fil-Am, Jose Llana.

While still in "The King & I," Paolo was sent by his agent to audition for a part in Cinderella. He read on a Friday with Brandy no less, then returned for a call back on Monday. By the next Friday, Paolo got the part, winning over (and the last of) 700 other auditionees.

During a telephone interview, we asked Paolo, in Los Angeles doing promotions for Cinderella, what made him clinch the part. After a little prodding and sounding somewhat embarrassed, Paolo said: "The director said it wasn't just because I could sing and dance, it was because he found out, by talking to me at length, that there was a person behind the actor. He said that was what he was looking for in his Prince."

Without sounding a bit cocky, Paolo claims that the audition was almost a breeze; no nerves wracked, no butterflies in his stomach. "I came quite prepared; musical theater is what I know how to do," Paolo declares.

And so the 24-year-old Jerseyian was whisked to Hollywood and for 28 days, filmed Cinderella at its main set in Culver City and in a sound stage where decades ago, Judy Garland's "Wizard of Oz" was shot. "It was almost a mystical experience for me," says Paolo.

What was Day 1 like? "Everything went right. We shoot out of sequence and my first scene was kissing with Brandy. It was the first of our four or five kisses in the movie. Brandy did not want to rehearse the scene, and since it called for some special effects, we were asked to do it 10 different ways. Brandy was nice about it. She made sure her parents were on the set though."

"Brandy's an angel and she has that one quality that you don't learn in acting class: availability. She's only 18 and yet she has been able to handle her success really well. She was rather shy and fidgety during the audition, but she was composed and confident on the set."

Whitney Houston? "If it weren't for her, there wouldn't have been this new version of Cinderella. Four years ago, Whitney asked her agent to find something she could do, and got her Cinderella. For some reason, Whitney did not get around to doing it. By the time the project was ready, Whitney decided she didn't fit the role anymore, being by then already a wife and a mother. She opted to play the role of the Fairy Godmother instead. We didn't have a scene together but on the set she was nice and friendly. Her talent is really awesome."

Another cast member whom Paolo is ecstatic about is Whoopie Goldberg who plays Paolo's mother in the film. According to Paolo, Whoopie is so down to earth and not at all an egocentric as might be expected.

"Whoopie has a way of bringing you up to her level of excellence and make the job seem easy. She is open and generous."

Paolo has some nice words as well for Bernadette Peters and Jason Alexander who plays the Prince's steward, Lionel. He calls Alexander a master craftsman who can do everything - sing, dance, draw laughter, he does them all.

As for Peters, Paolo found her very funny on the set, kind and incredible.

Working with such an assemblage of talent for 28 days, did Paolo find the experience intimidating?

"I realized I couldn't do that, be intimidated. There simply was no time to think about that. The only time that the whole experience threatened to blow me away a bit was when I was driving home after a day's work. That's when I realized that wow! I'm in this movie with all these incredible talents. It was almost an overwhelming feeling."

Paolo is the only son of Paul and Vivian Montalban. Both are chemists but work as programmers - he at IBM Global services and she at Chase Manhattan. Paolo has a sister named Gloria who has just graduated from dental school. The family came to the U.S. when Paolo was just one and a half years old, which explains the fact that he cannot speak (but can understand) Tagalog.

According to Paul Montalban, his son's musical inclinations may have been formed early on when the family lived for a time across the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in their early years in New York.

It may have also helped that an aunt of Paolo, the violinist Divinagracia Montalban, who had been a child prodigy back in Manila, was taking her masters at Juilliard just across the street from the Montalban apartment. In her spare time, Divinagracia taught the Montalban children the musical arts.

Later, Paolo's musicality was further honed when he enrolled at the Lincoln Square Academy, the exclusive school for performing children. As a boy of four, Paolo knew all the show tunes by heart and was always singing them during long vacation drives, recalls his father Paul. "Oh, how that boy loved to sing, but we never imagined he would be doing it professionally when he grew up."

Paolo is 6'1" and claims to have no girlfriend at present. He has been back to the Philippines only once since they immigrated in the U.S. This was back in 1993 when Paolo was in his teens. According to him, he felt an overwhelming sense of belonging at seeing faces that looked like his own. "I had never felt like that before and there was a relief at being able to identify with everyone."

Unfortunately, Paolo may not be able to go back anytime soon. He is currently busy looking at other projects like feature films, TV movies and, of course, more Broadway plays.

But he says he will find time to look for his ideal girl whom Paolo describes as someone "who can make me laugh, who I can talk to and who is not bad looking either."