Leo Valdez: Rightful Ruler of the Stage
Written and photographed
By Jude Bautista
The success of Resorts World’s “King and I” has etched Leo Valdez as the lead role in the minds of most fans. Ticket sales have already convinced producers to extend the run to December 30, 2012. Leo Valdez, however was King Mongkut long before anyone ever thought of producing “King and I” locally. Physically he already sported the bald look for years. Vocally its difficult to think of anyone having a more imposing resume.
One of the roles he is most known for, the Engineer in Miss Saigon matches the accent and almost the nationality. Miss Saigon’s setting of Vietnam is practically the neighbor of Thailand; setting of what was then the kingdom of Siam in ‘King and I.’ The facial features and the accents of the two countries in speaking English are not exactly the same but is similar.
Seeing him live in CCP’s 40th anniversary celebration in March 2009 was really remarkable. Covering that event was one of the early assignments I had, as Entertainment staff of Manila Bulletin. Being there to see that celebration was definitely a privilege that I won’t forget. It was one of those performances that remain in your mind long after the night ended. It had one of the most complete, resounding and longest standing ovations I had ever witnessed.
You know you’ve seen something special when it makes you really proud not just of the performances but of our Filipino culture and heritage. The Cultural Center of the Philippines is the epicenter of nearly all art forms in our country. So they had to think up of a single show that would represent the prestige and honor of that title.
The best dancers, singers, actors spanning various genres were there. Lisa Macuja Elizalde enthralled audiences with White Swan Pax De Deux with partner Nazer Salgado of Ballet Manila. Excerpts from the best performances of resident companies like: Ballet Philippines, Philippine Ballet Theater, The Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group and the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company were also seen.
The actors of Tanghalang Pilipino, Gantimpala Theater Foundation, reprised the most memorable plays and musicals. Jed Madela and Bo Cerrudo sang the classic ‘Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika’ which won the Metro Pop Grand Prize in 1978. Cerrudo incidentally is also in the King Mongkut role for Resort’s World’s “King and I”. It was such an incredible array of artists. The list is truly long and prestigious. Finding the right person to sing the grand finale to cap this unearthly show was an almost impossible task.
To top it all, Leo Valdez came out in his trademark ‘bald’ look, foo manchu moustache, belting out his hit “Magsimula Ka”. The song written by Gines Tan won third prize at the 4th Metro Pop Fest established by now Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos. Valdez performed the song that launched his career in the festival that discovered Freddie Aguilar, Hajji Alejandro, Celeste Legaspi and even composer Ryan Cayabyab. After covering so many concerts, musical events, I have yet to see an ovation that would equal what happened after that song, to be fair after the assortment of talent that night.
“Magsimula Ka” was the crescendo to all of the best that CCP had to offer. The message of the song is to inspire one to create. Yes it is the 40th anniversary, but this is just the beginning. We’re going to go on. The lyrics say it all, “Magsimula ka, pilitin at tuklasin ang hanap…Madanas man ang maraming hirap…Ang mithiin mo pag naging ganap…Langit ng pagsisikap iyo nang malalasap”. In this time of economic crisis, the words have more significance. It’s an inspiring message of creative excellence from the CCP that will continue no matter what the current challenges are.
When you watch Leo as King Mongkut in “King and I” he easily inhabits the role. Although vocally, one gets the feeling that the Rogers and Hammerstein songs don’t really stretch his range. The songs may be ‘too easy’ for someone who has such a powerful and operatic voice. Comparing Valdez to one of the most iconic actors of all time who made the film version famous, Yul Brynner is not a disservice to either one.
Brynner’s advantage is his macho, almost overpoweringly strong commanding presence on screen, which Valdez may in some ways duplicate. Yul’s bald look and bearing made you believe he’s King. But vocally there’s no way that Brynner could compete with Valdez. In a previous interview with Ida del Mundo of Phil. Star, Valdez confessed that he took the best parts of both Yul Brynner and Chow Yun Fat’s interpretation of King Mongkut and then made it his own.
Filling the role of Anna also had to be strong in order to stand up to someone like Valdez as an actor. Otherwise she’s going to disappear performance wise. Monique Wilson more than made up for this, who also used to be a lead actress for Miss Saigon. There’s so much amazing chemistry between Leo and Monique that you can’t help but fall in love with them as a couple. What “King and I” has done is to create the perfect role and show for Leo Valdez to be crowned as the ‘Rightful Ruler of the Stage.’