Saigon to Sondheim: Joaquin Pedro Valdes finds second home in UK 2
Joaquin Pedro Valdes in 'Pacific Overtures.' Photo courtesy of Joaquin Pedro Valdes

Saigon to Sondheim: Joaquin Pedro Valdes finds second home in UK

Joaquin Pedro Valdes has done half a dozen productions in the UK since the start of the pandemic. And he cannot be any prouder of “Pacific Overtures,” which is set in 19th century Japan.
Leah C. Salterio | Feb 02 2024

When theater actor Joaquin Pedro Valdes left the Philippines in 2017 and performed for the first time in the United Kingdom the following year, he initially was the understudy of Thuy and The Engineer in the UK tour of “Miss Saigon,” while at the same time was a member of the ensemble.

While returning to Manila was an option, Valdes considered uprooting to the UK after “Miss Saigon.” The international tour of “The King and I” followed and Valdes played the understudy for Lun Tha and he got to perform alongside Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara.

The pandemic didn’t stop Valdes from venturing into other theater productions done open-air and following social distancing. In August 2020, Valdes joined the six-man cast of “Fanny and Stella: The Shocking True Story.” They started rehearsing in June that year for the staging at The Garden Theatre adjacent to The Eagle Pub on Kensington Lane in London.

At that time, face masks had to be work at all times and the audience strictly needed to follow social distancing.

After only 10 months, Valdes made his West End debut in “Heathers: The Musical,” where he essayed the character of Ram Sweeney, the good-looking and sporty jock.

His most recent production is the acclaimed Stephen Sondheim musical, “Pacific Overtures,” which is now playing at The Menier Chocolate Factory.

“I was in the middle of doing a new show at the Riverside Studios when Cathy Jayes, the musical supervisor of ‘Pacific Overtures’ came to see it,” Valdes recalled. “Cathy had been supervising most of the Sondheim titles done at the Menier.

“So when she invited me over to meet Matt White, our director, and Tom and David from The Menier, it was hard to say no. I came to audition and the rest fell into place.”

Valdes started rehearsing for “Pacific Overtures” in October and the musical opened to previews in November last year. 

“I play the historical figure John Manjiro, a Japanese fisherman, lost at sea and picked up by Americans and brought back to Massachusetts,” Valdes shared. “He spent his formative years there and learned the ways of America and ventured back home to Japan.

“During the Edo period, this was considered treason and punishable by death. But the shogun made use of him to be a de facto mediator with the oncoming Perry Expedition. The show itself takes creative liberties from here and changes his character’s trajectory.”

Valdes has done half a dozen productions in the UK since the start of the pandemic. And he cannot be any prouder of “Pacific Overtures,” which is set in 19th century Japan.

“It’s a Stephen Sondheim show!,” Valdes beamed. “Anyone in the business would know that doing a Sondheim show is a completely unique and incomparable experience.

“Also, I get to perform at The Menier Chocolate Factory which is known to be one of Steve’s favorite venues in London. The humble space has been the home of some performances from the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Maria Friedman, Catherine Zeta Jones and Cynthia Erivo. So I’m performing history, in a truly historic venue, written by a historic composer.”

Joaquin Pedro Valdes in 'Death Note.' Photo courtesy of Joaquin Pedro Valdes
Joaquin Pedro Valdes in 'Death Note.' Photo courtesy of Joaquin Pedro Valdes

One of the challenges of doing “Pacific Overtures” is the music of Sondheim. “Learning the music is always the hardest part of any Sondheim show,” admitted Valdes. “It’s deceptively simple but really complex. Then there’s his lyrics. But the genius of the work is such that the more you delve into the music and lyrics, the more you understand the piece in its entirety.

“The text itself is quite heady – a musical about the opening up of ancient Japan to the Western forces. I mean how is that possibly entertaining? But with John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim, the text comes to life into a justified evening of music, comedy and tragedy.”

Valdes previously did a Sondheim musical in Manila when he played Jack in “Into the Woods.” Apparently, he gravitates towards Sondheim musicals. 

“Sondheim is arguably the father of the modern American musicals,” maintained Valdes. “He has a way with words and music and the marriage of both that just emanates humanity and truth even long after the curtain falls.

“There is an honesty and vulnerability that is so hard to capture. Even long after you’ve watched or heard a Sondheim show, his songs still haunt you, whether that’s tickling your puzzled brain, or mending a scarred heart. On my low days, I listen to a Sondheim song and find I’m able to move again.”

 Joaquin Pedro Valdes in 'Death Note.' Photo courtesy of Joaquin Pedro Valdes
Joaquin Pedro Valdes in 'Death Note.' Photo courtesy of Joaquin Pedro Valdes

Before this, Valdes’ last London production, “Death Note,” was warmly received by audiences who watched and applauded his lead character, Light Yagami.

“'Death Note’ was a special one,” said Valdes. “It was the European premiere of the title which was already loved by fans from South Korea, Japan and all over the world. So, there was a sense of pressure.

“But I was drawn to it like duck to water. I loved the source material and I loved the music. Frank Wildhorn is a bonafide hit-maker. And as a pop/rock singer, there is something so satisfying singing his music.

“But more importantly, the way the music and the book by Ivan Menchell and lyrics by Jack Murphy, just encapsulated the epic scale of the manga. It was really something to behold. It’s no wonder the fans of the manga, anime and musical grew exponentially and feel so protective over this IP (internet protocol). 

“Light Yagami was a delight to play. A proper anti-hero with all the trappings of charm and rage. Light goes through the ultimate moral dilemma of doing God’s work but at the cost of his own fallibility. It was meaty, complex, layered and really an actor’s dream. And did I mention all the rock tenor singing.”

There is an original cast recording of “Death Note” done with Valdes in it. 
“There is a concept album recorded with the original London cast,” shared Valdes. “I perform in it alongside Adam Pasquale, Aimie Atkinson, Frances Mayli McCann, Dean John Wilson and an incredible ensemble.

“I recorded some tracks in London and New York, and all I can say is you are not ready for how epic this is going to be. I was not ready!”

UK is now the second home of Valdes who shares his flat with his lawyer-wife Agee, who supports his theater career 100 percent.

“The UK is home now as much as Manila is,” admitted Valdes. “Home is wherever I wake up next to my wife, making a cup of hot coffee and sharing quiet mornings talking about all things mundane. She has been my rock and my anchor. I wouldn’t be doing any of these without her.”

After being away from Manila for more than six years, Valdes dreams of performing anew in the local stage. The Manila audiences deserve to experience his talent and art again.

“Any reason or opportunity to come home would be welcome,” Valdes said. “God has blessed me with a wonderful life and countless chances to grow and learn. I would be remiss to pass up on a chance to share it, especially with my fellow Filipinos.

“I pray for the perfect opportunities and the perfect partners to make that happen sooner than later.”

“Pacific Overtures” goes onstage at The Menier Chocolate Factory in the UK until February 25.