Scene from “The Lion King” musical

Homegrown Filipino thespian Joaquin Pedro Valdes makes hopscotching from one coveted theater production to another seem easy. After his stint in “Fanny and Stella” and in the West End hit “Heathers: The Musical,” he immediately joined the stellar cast of the sci-fi musical “Vanara,” which only began its run at Hackney Empire in London last Friday.

As if those weren’t impressive enough, Joaquin’s participation in the upcoming UK and Ireland tour of Disney’s “The Lion King” was announced one day before his debut in the role of Rooh in “Vanara.” He will be joining the ensemble, covering and understudying the lead role of Simba in the production.

More than just another casting feat, Joaquin sees his latest triumph on the world stage as a “dream come true” because “well, it’s ‘The Lion King,’” he quipped during our late-night chat last Saturday.

Asked what makes his next assignment extra special, he said, “I think it’s more poignant because ‘The Lion King’ is going back on tour on a scale that only Disney does so well. It’s a sign that the world is coming out of the darkness that COVID brought.

“The story of a lion finding his identity, rising up and leading his kingdom to fight a common enemy is also a story that people want to hear over and over again. We’ve all been spiritually broken and beaten by the past 20 months or so that it’s time we can begin hoping again. As Simba sings, ‘I know that the night must end… and that the sun will rise.’ What could be more appropriate?”

Explaining further his excitement to join the musical, he said, “I am in the fantastic ensemble of the most diverse and talented actors from all over the world. It’s a physically and vocally demanding task. Add to that the fact that I need to work these gorgeous puppets, which is something new for me.”

Moreover, being given the chance to bring the well-loved production’s lead character to life is something that instantly resonates with Joaquin. “I will be covering/understudying Simba, which is such an iconic role, whose story of finding his roar and identity hits extremely close to home,” he admitted.

Joaquin Pedro Valdes as Rooh in “Vanara” backstage

But what led Joaquin to “The Lion King”?

“I have had quite the journey with the musical,” he disclosed. “I first officially auditioned for the London production back in 2018 in the middle of the ‘Miss Saigon’ UK tour. I’ve been to auditions a few more times through the years, and there were even a couple of remote recalls while I was in Zurich.

“It has always been a lovely experience, consistently getting the most affirming feedback from the team. But schedules just never aligned. At the height of the lockdown, when all the contracts and tours came to a screeching halt, ‘The Lion King’ team contacted my agent to say that they were still very interested and that they’d get back to us when plans were clearer.

“After the restrictions were lifted, I got the call to come in to audition again and it was nice to walk into a room seeing familiar smiles and all their eyes lighting up, clearly rooting for me.”

But the lure of “The Lion King” was something more personal for Joaquin: “I absolutely loved the film that inspired this musical,” he explained. “I grew up singing ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’—on repeat (laughs)!

“Also, of all the Disney films, I loved that this was based off ‘Hamlet.’ It was such a memory for me and when they turned it into a musical, it was just magic on another level. I remember ordering the OBCR (original Broadway cast recording) from CD Warehouse in Virra Mall and waiting months before it could get shipped to the Philippines.

“My friend had a bootleg VHS recording of their very first Tony Awards performance of ‘Circle of Life,’ and seeing that sun rise and the gazelles, cheetahs and giraffes was really cathartic. So being part of it… just completes the circle!” INQ

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