She is lauded as a combination of Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, and Sarah Brightman—but as the first Filipina vocalist to perform solo at Carnegie Hall, Stephanie Reese stands on her own merit. The American-born singer, songwriter, and theater actress has received international acclaim for her work onstage—playing, among others, Kim in the German production of “Miss Saigon,” Esmeralda in Disney World’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and Princess Tuptim in the West End’s “The King and I.” Most recently, she penned and performed a theatrical solo concert entitled “I Am Stephanie Reese,” debuting to spectacular reviews at a jam-packed Teatrino in Manila.
But while she is “excited to represent” on such a world-class scale, Reese has never forgotten her roots. Last week she held a press conference introducing a special treat for her fellow Filipinos—an exclusive encore of “I Am Stephanie Reese” to be held at the Music Museum on October 2, with all proceeds going directly to Gawad Kalinga. The concert will be the precursor to her much-anticipated Carnegie performance. “I decided that I would do my show here and bring the very best back to the stage,” says Reese, who is due to perform at the celebrated New York City music hall on November 7. “Filipinos [abroad] are really so excited to have talent come from the Philippines. I’m hoping to launch more recognition [for that talent].”
Queen of Cabaret
One person who esteems Reese’s own talent is theater heavyweight Audie Gemora, who is featured in the songstress’ coming production. “Nothing gives a performer more pleasure—aside from performing—than presenting new talent,” declares Gemora, who seems to have taken an instant liking to his fellow artist. “We are so thrilled that Stephanie has agreed to perform her art form.” Comparing Reese’s technique with that of veterans Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf, he continues, “We are going to establish a new form of entertainment—cabaret—and I think Stephanie is right up that alley.”
Indeed, Reese’s approach to performing is a throwback to older, purer times. Before answering any questions for the press, she graces the crowd with a medley of songs: a jazzy number by Shirley Bassey (as recommended by her father), a dramatic ballad from “The Phantom of the Opera,” and a sexy self-composed ragtime tune that is her most-requested number among fans. Reese’s voice is startlingly clear and potent; you can’t help but hold your breath when her operatic vibrato shoots for the high notes. She shakes her head and hands, tosses her hair, curves her body over each powerful burst of melody as the emotion behind each song clearly registers on her face. And then—always the quintessential performer—she smiles, and the entire room falls under her charm. One can imagine the similar effect she would have had over an audience in the roaring 20s; a throng of flappers in a crowded, smoky dive, applauding on their feet. It’s no wonder Carnegie wants our U.S.-nicknamed “Standing Ovation Queen”: she melds old-world with the new, a feat that promises her a place alongside the legends.
Reese, who has Filipino-Chinese blood from her mother’s side, and Japanese-Irish-English-Welsh on her father’s, prides herself on her Asian ethnicity. “I come across in a very diverse way, though I still think of myself as Filipina. I think that has made me a sort of ambassador,” she says, clearly respecting her role as unofficial envoy of the Philippines. She goes on to share how her multi-ethnicity—and Oriental background in particular—has made her accessible to a larger audience, since members of several cultures can relate to her as one of their own. This works to her advantage in two ways. First, she is embraced into the fold of cultural minorities in the US (It isn’t just the Fil-Ams—in fact, an entire community of Japanese fans is flying en masse from Seattle to New York to support her in November). Second, her versatile looks prevent her from being typecast in primarily Asian roles. “A lot of people think that I’m Latina!” she laughs, citing the power of such first impressions in getting a part like the gypsy Esmeralda.
“I think when you are a minority in the States, you know you are different, and you never really quite know how easy it will be,” muses Reese, still surprised, after all these years, that she is one of those lucky Filipinos who gets to be a international star. She recounts her first-ever encounter with the Carnegie stage—as a little girl, she performed with an all-white children’s choir, and then and there decided that this was what she was going to do when she grew up. “I was the only minority, the only person of color... So I just want people to know that the dreams you have are possible.” Take it from her, Pinays: she’s got a one-woman show.
Pain and Purpose
Despite the confidence and strength behind her delivery, both onstage and off, Reese has had to take a few hard knocks to get her where she is today. Four years ago, she suffered a crushing personal tragedy when her boyfriend was killed in a car accident. During her grieving period, she went through bouts of depression and resentment against God. It was during this dark time that she was introduced to Gawad Kalinga by her parents, who had asked her to sing for a charity event. After seeing a video that depicted the extreme poverty her countrymen were living with, the talented singer felt an instant transformation take place within her. “Something changed in my heart at that moment,” she says. “You feel like you’ve won some life lottery as to why you get to live in comfort. I was given so much; how can I sit in depression over the loss of one person when there are people just running around with absolutely nothing—and they were happy!”
Reese approached GK President Tony Meloto, who convinced her to pay a visit to the country. When she finally spent time at her first GK Village on the outskirts of Quezon City, she knew that she had found her way to heal and to grow. “I felt there was something about seeing the losses that other people had. You realize what a luxury it is to be depressed when you’re not in survival mode.”
Now active in the cause, and no longer tormented by blows to her personal life, Reese has some fighting words for those who may be going through the same cycle of pain: look to God for your higher purpose. “There is a bigger picture than your own personal tragedy—there is a bigger world that’s outside of yourself. Look outward.”