Cast of "Heathers: The Musical" —PHOTOS BY PAMELA RAITH
Hot on the heels of his West End debut in the 2021 revival of "Heathers: The Musical" at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, homegrown Filipino thespian Joaquin Pedro Valdes continues to book one coveted role after another, demonstrating that his red-hot streak that began in "Miss Saigon," "The King and I" and "Fanny and Stella" was no fluke.
Joaquin's latest feat is "Vanara," a dance-heavy, "Avatar"-channeling musical about two tribes on an alternate Earth risking life and limb as they fight over fire to survive.
The production, whose 2018 workshop iteration was topbilled by Eva Noblezada (of "Miss Saigon" and "Yellow Rose"), will finally make its world premiere at the Hackney Empire in London from Oct. 22 to 30. Aside from Joaquin (in the role of Rooh), the cast also includes Matthew Croke (Mohr), Emily Bautista (Ayla), Glenn Carter (Tahl) and Johnny Fiori (Oroznah).
"The story takes place in an alternate universe and plays out like a science-fiction epic that mixes contemporary dance with gorgeous music—and we're all in a loincloth!" Joaqs told us over Zoom last Tuesday. "I was looking at the workshops and listening to the concept album, but what really struck me the most about 'Vanara' was its beautiful music. It's so satisfying to sing! You can check out the songs, featuring Eva Noblezada and Rob Houchen (who played Marius in 'Les Miserables'), on Spotify.
Protect the gift
"It's a cross between Schoenberg, 'Les Miserables,' 'Miss Saigon' and Disney. The composer is Italian, and the score is as grand as it is cinematic. I will be rehearsing with the cast for three weeks beginning Sept. 27."
Pressed to say something more about the story of "Vanara" and his role in it, Joaquin related, "There are different tribes in this world. My character, Rooh, belongs to a tribe called the Kogalisk, which is run by a matriarch. All the other groups have different fields of expertise, but the Kogalisk is the only tribe that knows how to produce fire. And through generations, they need to protect that gift.
"My character is betrothed to Ayla, the main character, who's going to be the next leader of the Kogalisk. But, as with stories involving prearranged marriages, Ayla then falls in love with a man named Mohr, who's from another tribe. More intertribal tension and war ensue when Ayla gives the gift of fire to Mohr. That's the general premise of it.
"For the past three years or so, they've been workshopping the musical, then released the concept album. Its global premiere next month will be a fully staged production with orchestra, which I'm so excited about. And it's not the usual musical-theater production because this one is dance-heavy as well. It has two directors (Adam Lenson and Eleesha Drennan).
"It's quite ambitious because the score is very difficult, so they need amazing singers as principals, backed up by exceptional dancers in the ensemble. It's nice to go into something brand-new and be able to see how all of these elements would come together. And it's doubly exciting to be originating something."
Joaquin Pedro Valdes with fellow "jock" Ross Harmon (foreground)
Our Q&A with Joaquin:
Weren't you supposed to play the lead role in a pantomime production of "Aladdin" during the Christmas holidays?
I was supposed to do "Aladdin, the panto, but my agent was like, "I'm going to put you on a 'betterment' (a clause in a contract in which the recipient is given an option to do a 'better' project than originally intended). The British panto is basically children's theater that is staged every Christmas.
These shows are huge and high-profile—nagpapasiklaban ang mga 'yan. The run may be short … just three weeks … but pays well. The betterment clause in the contract allows me to say yes to the project, but if something better comes along, they're going to release me. And something did, although I'm not at liberty to talk about it just yet.
What was your first West End experience like?
Wow, I don't even know where to start. Unang-una, "Heathers" wasn't just my first West End production—it was my first show after this whole global pandemic. So all of a sudden, that made it more important. Not only was it my first show right after the series of lockdowns in the UK, it was also the first production to open at full capacity.
"Heathers" was supposed to open on June 21, which was the "magic date" wherein all the restrictions were going to be lifted. So, we were rehearsing toward June 21. We had a 10-day rehearsal process, which wasn't easy because only one of our cast members had done it three years ago. It was not an easy show to do because it required full-on choreography with wall-to-wall music, including power ballads with full backup singing—and we needed to learn all of that in just 10 days! We didn't have time to breathe.
More than that, we also had to deal with the whole "ping-demic" situation in the UK, where you can be notified and advised—"pinged"—by the NHS COVID-19 app on your phone to self-isolate, even if you're negative, for a certain amount of time if the app "identifies" that you have been in close contact with someone who had tested positive! If a member of the company gets "pinged," that wreaks havoc on the whole rehearsal process.
There were 18 cast members and a strong band of six, then there's also the technical and backstage crew. We didn't have swings, so everybody in the ensemble was covering a lead. We were thrown every single challenge imaginable. Given the things we had to go through, you can imagine how emotional our final performances were.
It was so poetic on our final day. There was a mob of fans right by the corridor, and every time a cast member would come out, there'd be cheering! I've never been in any show like this. What made it even more significant was that our stage door at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on Suffolk Street is right across the Philippine Embassy!
As an artist, you've done pretty much everything when you were in the Philippines. While you were predominantly a theater star ("Into the Woods," "Matilda"), you were also part of a boy band (17:28), a TV host ("100% Pinoy"), a recording artist ("The Jazzanova Project"), a movie actor ("Niño") and a filmmaker ("Dagim," "Bulong"). Which of these endeavors brings the most fulfillment for you?
I find fulfillment always at the end of any process that I put my heart and mind into. There's always fulfillment whatever the medium is, especially if I get to collaborate with people who are as much interested in the process as I am.
Consistently, what I do find is, I get more of that in theater—my journey as a theater actor has always been at the core of all of my other iterations. So, as a director or writer, I still go back to my experience as a theater actor. My training in theater will always be second skin to me—and that's where I genuinely find the most challenge.
It's been a journey for you since you did "Miss Saigon." Could you point out the things that you learned from each of your projects in the UK—from "Saigon" to "The King and I" to "Fanny and Stella" to "Heathers: The Musical"?
"Miss Saigon" for me was my trial by fire … my training ground. I was always insecure about my experience as a Filipino theater actor and how I would fare on the world stage—because while we have talent, we really don't have the proper training. But training is crucial. My colleagues here went through three, four years of drama-school training—they learn current and updated techniques in dancing, singing, Shakespeare and text work. Talent gets you in the door, but it's not enough to keep you in. You need to develop your skill—hindi p'wedeng dinadaan mo lang sa ouido, especially if you're doing seven, eight shows a week. Physical and vocal stamina is just one thing.
"Saigon" was my school for one year—I realized the kind of performer I am and the things I needed to fix or improve on, as an actor, as a person and as a husband. I was very, very hard on myself about wanting to improve. The bow, attention and adulation never really excited me—what excited me was constant growth. "Saigon" humbled me, as well. "King and I," on the other hand, was more about sustaining a certain standard in my performance. They were all rites of passage for me.
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