The Lion King and Queen: Jeana Cachero and Stefan Ruiz
In the words of the Mamas and the Papas ‘all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey’, which can mean only one thing: the end of the summer is drawing near. Normally a time to mourn the loss of sun for another 9 months, the last days of August also come as a ray of light for many parents as the Society Of London Theatre’s Kids Week, running every year, gives children a chance to get into theatre and parents a chance for a bit of respite after a long summer holiday. So, in keeping with Kids Week, Matthew Amer talked to two of London’s youngest stars, Stefan Ruiz and Jeana Cachero, who are currently playing Young Simba and Young Nala in The Lion King.
‘Never work with children or animals’; a stock phrase which has been ground into the psyche of anyone who has ever watched one of the many outtake shows which occasionally infect our televisions. Until now it has always been used in conjunction with actors and television presenters: who knows what might happen when standing for no good reason at the wrong end of a cow? But has it ever been used in conjunction with a young, good-looking, enthusiastic theatrical journalist and does it serve as a double warning about children who play animals? There is only one way to find out…
Based on the award-winning Disney film, The Lion King has been packing out the Lyceum Theatre since 1999 and welcomed its three-millionth audience member earlier this year. Worldwide the show has been so popular that 16 million people have seen it, which is approximately equal to the population of the Netherlands but is less likely to wear clogs. This phenomenal amount of success along with the pressure of performing in front of 2000 people each night would surely be enough to make the bravest of crocodiles cry. Yet our intrepid young stars (Stefan is only 11 and Jeana 10) did not seem too fazed having just performed for the first time in front of The Lion King’s audience. Jeana, in fact, seemed cooler than a basking wildebeest enjoying a chilled Pimms by the local waterhole; “It was nerve wracking at first, but after a bit is was okay.” Stefan, it seems, found the first night slightly more daunting “[it was] very scary. And I was nervous. But after the first two scenes I just got into it.” Does nothing scare these children? If not a packed theatre, what about a hard-nosed interviewer who won’t take no for an answer? Apparently not, between them they’ve already done interviews for both television and radio, but as Stefan says with his tongue lodged, like a gobstopper, firmly in his cheek “we don’t want to boast.”
"The Simbas always make up a secret handshake."
One of the reasons Stefan and Jeana made it through their first performance on the Lyceum’s stage without being as scared as a gazelle at a lion convention was the camaraderie and support of the cast and backstage crew. “At the back everyone’s like ‘good luck’, ‘are you scared?’ and everyone’s talking to you. These are like the best cast”, explains Jeana. Stefan follows this with the sincerest of overused clichés, “We’re all like one big family. They’re all really friendly and really nice. Our mother in the cast told us that the Simbas have a tradition that we always make up a secret handshake.” If the secret handshake were to be disclosed here it obviously wouldn’t be secret any more and the wrath of the 46 strong cast and numerous burly crew would be incurred. As well as the cast, Stefan and Jeana are also looked after by their chaperones Kathy and Ted. Aside from both being “really nice” their liberal supplying of black market contraband keeps them on the right side of the starlets. Stefan explains “They let us have ice-cream” before Jeana adds “They’ll let us have pizza or whatever you want to have.”
Apart from the friends they have made in the cast and the chaperone’s choice of food, the other reason that they weren’t frightened about their first appearance in The Lion King is that they both really enjoy performing. Stefan explains why he enjoys it so much by saying “I just like the fun of things. All the new experiences are really interesting.” Jeana agrees, adding “It’s fun because you get to meet lots of people and have lots of friends. I like trying on the costumes!” Although Stefan agrees about the costumes he does mention that he has had a bit of problem with his wig. According to him, before each performance his wig is stuck to his head with superglue, but he is promptly corrected by Kathy the chaperone who assures me it is just stage glue and no body parts have ever accidentally been fused to the costumes.
"I just like the fun of things."
The show itself is a mix of acting, singing and dancing. Its music is award-winning in itself, with Elton John and Tim Rice awarded an Ivor Novello Award for International Achievement In Musical Theatre for the production and the Broadway cast recording winning a Grammy. To be a hit in the show, the kids also have to be able to put the singing, acting and dancing together seamlessly, something many adult performers find taxing. In addition to this they also have to learn how to move like a lion. But again this has all been taken in their now quite feline stride; “It is hard when you actually first do it. If you think about it, it’s a lot to remember” starts Jeana, “but when all the dancing moves and the acting and singing get put together it’s a lot easier” Stefan finishes off.
Neither Stefan nor Jeana currently attend a stage school, but both, having tried dancing and acting, spend some spare time attending classes and clubs. This doesn’t mean, of course, that school is not part of the pair’s hectic schedule. Although concessions have to be made for matinee performances the pair will have to go to school during the day before rushing up to the West End to perform in the evening. No superstar treatment for them, apart from the odd snack from the chaperones, but a tough day of school followed by an all-singing, all-dancing, action-packed, rip-roaring performance in the evening. Still, not a word of complaint, merely a quiet “it does catch up with you sometimes” from Stefan.
From fairly innocuous beginnings – Stefan started in local pantomimes and Jeana was spotted dressing up in her mother’s shop – both have enjoyed performing so much that they have appeared in many productions, both on tour and in the West End. But although Stefan has ambitions to following his acting career in adult life, Jeana’s sights are set elsewhere. “When I grow up I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a judge as well, either one of them, but I still want to have acting, singing and dancing there as well.”
The enjoyment both Stefan and Jeana get from performing is evident from the way they speak about it. Both have tales of favourite scenes, costumes, friends and cast members that have made their experiences special to them. When asked what they thought about children being given the chance to get more involved with theatre and experience it for themselves, the opportunity provided by Kids Week, their responses were unequivocal; “I think it is good because if a child would like to try acting they could give it a go” thought Jeana before Stefan added “And, if a child likes acting but doesn’t think he can, he could become inspired by it. Also you meet loads of people and make really good friends.”