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THE LEADING MEN: Pacific Heights
By Wayman Wong
01 Dec 2004

Paolo Montalban
photo by Ben Strothmann

In this holiday season, here are three heavenly "Leading Men" who sing like angels: Paolo Montalban (Pacific Overtures), Michael Arden (Easter Rising) and Tommy Foster (The METH-od to My Madness).

MAKING BRAZEN OVERTURES Paolo Montalban is a prince of a guy who got the royal treatment when he made his national TV debut in the 1997 ABC/Disney movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Cinderella." The Filipino-American hunk co-starred with Brandy, Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg. He gushes, "It was awesome working with them." And Goldberg says, "Paolo’s got a fabulous voice, and he’s a doll."

Amon Miyamoto, the acclaimed Japanese director of Pacific Overtures, agrees: "When I saw Paolo in 'Cinderella,' I thought he’d be just right for [the role of] Manjiro. He’s very sensitive and always dedicated." In the Roundabout’s radiant revival, which opens Dec. 2 at Studio 54, the story of how America opened up Japan in 1853 unfolds like origami in a Shinto temple of a set surrounded by water. Montalban shares the stage with B.D. Wong and Michael K. Lee, as well as two venerated veterans from the original 1976 Broadway cast: Sab Shimono, who played Manjiro and now plays Lord Abe, and Alvin Ing, who reprises his role as the Shogun’s mother. (Shimono jokes, "Alvin’s gonna keep singing ‘Chrysanthemum Tea’ until he gets it right!") Kidding aside, Shimono raves about the "wonderful cast" and is amazed by the younger actors: "When I hear [Paolo] sing ‘Poems,’ I swear, ‘Omigod! That’s me.’"

Montalban, 31, made his Broadway debut in The King and I (1996) and has toured in Cinderella with Deborah Gibson and Eartha Kitt. His film and TV credits include "American Adobo," "Mortal Kombat Conquest" and "The Great Raid." The 6-foot-2 Rutgers grad also has released a pop CD, which features stirring, rich renditions of "Close Upon the Hour" from The King of Hearts and "Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?" from Cinderella. And he’s a People person: In 1998, the magazine named him one of the "50 Most Beautiful People."

Question: Congrats! How’s it feel returning to Broadway in an all Asian-American ensemble, and in a Sondheim show? Paolo Montalban: Amazing! It’s an incredible cast. I used to spend hours in the library listening to Sondheim’s songs, and now I’m in this show, and it’s mind-blowing. Both Stephen and John Weidman are so inspiring. I thank my lucky stars that they look out for us and make us look good in telling their story.

Q: What can you tell us about the real-life Manjiro? Montalban: Manjiro is the equivalent of Christopher Columbus in Japan. He was the first Japanese citizen to spend time in America. He was a fisherman who was shipwrecked at age 14 and rescued by American whalers. They brought him to the U.S. where he was educated and went back to Japan. In our show, he’s got a great arc. Manjiro starts off with a high regard for American ways and wants to bring them to Japan. But he comes full circle and becomes a samurai and returns to his roots.

Q: But in real life, Manjiro didn’t become a samurai, right? Montalban: No. And [how he’s depicted here] is a touchy subject for the Japanese. In real life, Manjiro became a navigator and a professor. Amon, our director, is proud of all the Japanese traditions and history, but he’s also an artist. And if art requires artistic license, then so be it. He’s one of the most passionate directors I’ve ever known. I know Amon has acted out every role in this play, done their choreography and figured out all their back stories. He’s phenomenal.

Q: What’s it like working with Sab Shimono, the original Manjiro? Montalban: First, it took my sister to let me know that Sab is the voice of Uncle on "The Jackie Chan Adventures." And I love cartoons, and that’s so cool. The wonderful thing about having great actors like Sab and Alvin Ing — guys who have done this play before — is they raise your game level. I even asked Sab for advice and he gave me some great pointers. I say if it’s good, steal it. [Laughs.]

Q: What do you think of B.D. Wong? Montalban: He’s amazing, so generous and down-to-earth.

Q: B.D. was outspoken during the casting controversy over Miss Saigon in 1990. The show wanted to cast Jonathan Pryce, a Welsh actor, as the Engineer because they said they couldn’t find any Asian actor who could play it. Montalban: Are you serious? That’s ridiculous. Come on!

Q: Shimono told me: "I auditioned for the Engineer and was told I couldn’t do it. A total lie!" How are things for Asian actors now? Montalban: I’d like to think that progress is being made.

Q: Actually, it was progress when you got cast in "Cinderella." Montalban: The reaction was fantastic, especially from kids. If a child sees an Asian prince with a white father and a black Cinderella, then he realizes we are all pretty much the same. It was a great role. I got to do all those sappy things you’re afraid to do in real life, like fall in love. I could lose the girl and then find her again.

Q: Speaking of girls, I hear you used to read Cosmo and Seventeen. Montalban: Yes, shamelessly. I wanted to know what girls are thinking. And my sister had a subscription. I also took ballet in college for a year because of all the girls. It was just me and a gay guy and 18 girls. Here’s the crazy thing: I thought I was gonna pick up girls, but I took the class seriously, and it’s really paid off.

Q: What do you look for in a woman? Montalban: This is gonna sound like Prince Charming, but I like a woman who’s beautiful, witty, talented, passionate, intelligent and graceful.

Q: Seeing anyone special right now? Montalban: No. But for a couple of months, I had a G.L.T. That’s a Good Little Thing, as opposed to Gay, Lesbian, Transgender. [Laughs.]

For more information, visit www.epaolo.com.

Paolo Montalban website: http://www.ePaolo.com