At Reel Asian Jeigh Madjus (middle) stars in the "performative cinema" version of Prisoner Dancer.
PRISON DANCER a video and live performance, directed by Romeo Candido, written by Candido and Carmen De Jesus. Friday (November 9), 6:45 pm, as part of Reel Asian at the Royal. LA CAGE AUX FOLLES(Mirvish). At the Royal Alexandra (260 King West). To November 18. See listing.
Jeigh Madjus is the first to admit that he's difficult to cast.
"I'm Asian, have a high voice and I'm really short," he says. "I could do chorus work, but I stick out because of my height. So I never get hired for the ensemble."
Even so, the Toronto-born actor's dance card has been full this year doing two standout roles. For more than a year, he's been earning raves as the swishy butler/maid in the touring production of the Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles, which wraps up its run later this month at the Royal Alex.
And this week at the Reel Asian Film Festival, he performs in a unique "performative cinema" presentation of Prison Dancer, Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus's fictional look at six inmates in a maximum security prison in the Philippines.
It's inspired by the real-life story of inmates in a Cebu prison whose recreation of Michael Jackson's Thriller video became a viral sensation. Madjus plays Lola, the prison's pint-sized cross-dressing leader.
Prison Dancer has had many incarnations, from a web series and a live musical to the hybrid version that'll happen at Reel Asian.
I saw the full-length musical last July at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and was impressed, especially by Madjus, who acts as the show's narrator and has to exude a complex range of emotions, not to mention execute some wicked dance moves - in wedges, no less.
"Ironically, La Cage really prepared me to get into those shoes," he says.
The multimedia version will feature live actors performing with the video.
"The majority of vocals will be live," says Madjus, who's been attached to the project since 2009. "It's a whole new way of telling stories."
Working on all versions of the show has made him explore his own Filipino roots.
"Growing up, I wasn't in touch with my background," says Madjus, who also stood out in Angelwalk Theatre's production of the off-Broadway musical Altar Boyz. "But everyone involved with the show - from the cast to the creative team and producer - is Filipino or part-Filipino. I've learned so much about the value of a community.
"We all have the same kind of parents, so it's like we're cousins working on this together."
Coincidentally, he's using a Filipino accent for his role in La Cage, although it took him months to make it part of his character.
"When I auditioned for the role I used a Filipino accent, but the casting director suggested that though it was a strong choice, it might be better to get rid of it."
He got the part, but it was only after a night out with star George Hamilton that he was convinced to use it onstage.
"George was talking about the time he spent in the Philippines, giving me this history lesson of the country. And then he asked, ‘Have you ever thought of doing the role with a Filipino accent?' And I said, ‘Funny you should ask,' and in the middle of this bar I started doing all my lines with the accent. And he said, ‘This needs to be in the show.' Within a week he'd got it okayed by the producers, the director and the creative team."
Prison Dancer's all-Asian cast is especially refreshing in light of recent controversies about two high-profile theatre companies - the La Jolla Playhouse and the Royal Shakespeare Company - casting Caucasians in Asian roles.
"That was all going down while we were in rehearsals and running the show," he explains. "So it gave us a little buzz. But there's always been this joke in musical theatre: if you're not in Flower Drum Song, The King And I or Miss Saigon, where do you find work?"
Count on Madjus to find a way.