Isay Alvarez: the show must go on

Diagnosed with leukemia, West End’s Miss Saigon star Isay Alvarez finds comfort on stage and the rigours and excitement of travel

by Ces Rodriguez

Sometime in 2012, during rehearsals for the Philippine stage musical Katy, actress Isay Alvarez had a gastric attack, felt dizzy and keeled over. She underwent tests which confirmed she had leukemia. While this was a big blow to her and her family, she swore not to let the illness get in the way of life.

Before the tests, she told her husband of 21 years, fellow singer Robert Sena, that if the diagnosis was not good, if it was stage 4, then she was not going to undergo any medical treatment. “We’ll just go to Europe, go round the world, spend all our money, and enjoy life,” she said.

Though Isay initially refused conventional medical treatment in favor of what she called “wellness” or alternative medicine, her friend who was the head of Oncology at St. Luke’s hospital, did not stop until Isay agreed to a full cycle chemotheraphy.

Isay Alvarez Sena in Katy By Bernard Beltran Cruzata pinched from Isay Alvarez Sena's Facebook page

While undergoing chemotherapy, she was rehearsing for Katy —a musical on the life of Katy de la Cruz, the queen of Philippine vaudeville and jazz in the 1920s—and kept busy scheduling a trip with Robert to Japan. She refused to cancel her rehearsals and latched on to the excitement of traveling. In some sense, it was good to have something to latch on to, to take the worries away. “Travel is good for my soul,” she said.

Rak of Aegis pinched from Isay Alvarez Sena's Facebook page

When I interviewed Isay in November 2013, she was juggling appearances in the GMA network teleserye Adarna, rehearsals for Rak of Aegis, and planning for corporate shows in December, “the busiest time for us, as performers.” 

Christmas that December was in Israel, where she and Robert, with two kids in tow, were booked to attend the Manger Park International Music Fest. It was a gig and a holiday at the same time. The year after, it was Eastern Europe.

Isay and Robert in Vietnam pinched from Isay Alvarez Sena's Facebook page

It was on London’s West End stage as the vivacious bar girl Gigi in Miss Saigon some 27 years ago that she first met and fell in love with husband Robert.

Isay with Robert and their children pinched from Isay Alvarez Sena's Facebook page
Alvarez has a daughter and two sons. And she does not look a day older than when she first thrust that toned belly forward, planted those long legs and owned the West End stage “I’ve done so many things since Saigon. And I would love to do more original Filipino works on stage,” she said.

She started a performing arts school called Spotlight Artists’ Center with Robert and three other partners, which offers lessons for aspiring young artists; producing, and starring in the remake of the musical Katy, the life story of legendary Filipino jazz chanteuse Katy dela Cruz.

Isay and Robert in Rak of Aegis pinched from Isay Alvarez Sena's Facebook page
Early in 2014, she and Robert appeared in Rak of Aegis, a stage musical featuring the bombastic songs of local rock band Aegis.

Alvarez’s only frustration nowadays is the shortage of original Filipino stage musicals, plays, and performances. Local shows such as the successful Katy had to compete with the wholesale importation of international musicals, such as Wicked and Phantom of the Opera. When Alvarez played guide to the foreign cast of Miss Saigon when it played in Manila in 2000, she wished she could have capped her city tour with dinner and a Filipino show.

“You go to any Asian country and then you ask where you could get a glimpse of their culture. You’d have the boat show, the puppet show, the water puppet show- they have that. In Manila, where do you take them? To the mall? What’s Filipino? It’s our dream to have a long-running show for tourists. We’re very good performers, so it’s something that we can offer.”

Isay in Suwon, South Korea pinched from Isay Alvarez Sena's Facebook page
Isay Alvarez’s leukemia is now in remission. She has gained back much of the weight she lost. She extends her hand to show that it’s no longer drained of color. As to her travelling, well, she's looking forward to doing more.

Me and my travels: Isay Alvarez

My most memorable holiday was in Sagada. I had a great time there. It’s like a spur of the moment vacation but was made memorable because of the people, the culture, nature and the food. We went with a friend and stayed at Residential Lodge. For more information call +63919 672 8744.

When in Sagada we usually eat at Yoghurt House, Masferre Country Inn and Restaurant, Log Cabin, and Bana’s Café. Yoghurt House, tel +63908 112 8430. Masferre Country Inn and Restaurant, tel +63918 341 6164. Log Cabin, tel +63920 520 0463, Bana’s Café, tel +63939 338 4495.

My favorite resort is Shangri – La’s Mactan Resort and Spa because it’s like being transported into another place – an island paradise. I like the marine sanctuary there. I also like Discovery Shores in Boracay. In Cebu, we stay at Eden Resort in Liloan, the town next to Oslob. For inquiries and reservations, Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort and Spa, tel +6332 231 0288. Discovery Shores, tel +632 720 8888. Eden Resort, tel +6332 480 9321.

I shop at markets in Dumaguete for food like rice cakes, Baguio for organic blueberries, and Farmer’s Market in Cubao for seafood and vegetables.

I stayed in London for four years while performing for Miss Saigon. The places I frequented were the parks – Hyde Park and the Belsize Park, the castles and musuems.

My favorite restaurant is Lorenzo’s Way either at Greenbelt or The Fort for their crispy baby squid and desserts. I also like Stella and Rocketroom at the Bonifacio High Street for their mushroom pizza, Ba Noi’s Vietnamese Restaurant in Makati for spring rolls; and Green Pastures at Edsa Shangri-La for all the food because I’m into organic dishes. Lorenzo’s Way, tel +632 729 0047. Stella and Rocket Room, tel +632 621 3111. Ba Noir’s Vietnamese Restaurant, tel +632 843 4770. Green Pastures, tel +632 654 3219.

I read autobiographies. I’ve recently read Steve Jobs, and inspirational books such as Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Mark Atteberry’s The Samson Syndrome. I have also read Khaled Hosseini’s, And the Mountains Echoed. Get your own copies of these books in National Bookstore or Powerbooks.

I watch and support local stage performances by the Cultural Center of the Philippines, PETA, and the University of the Philippines Theater. Broadway in New York also thrills me. I always follow the Asosasyon ng Musikang Pilipino (AMP) Big Band wherever they perform.

Films I like are Ora Plata Mata for local; Out of Africa and Mama Mia for international films.

My favorite music artists are Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller December to January 2014. Updated April 2016