It is no new thing to dust off an old piece of theatre and invest it with current modernity. Think of the myriad of Shakespearean plays that have been transplanted to various places and times. There was a fine production of The Mikado in the Bay Area some years back that was recast in the Old West and called McCado. Pooh Bah was Pooh Bah Kincaid and Katisha became Katie Shaw. More liberties have been taken with The Three Penny Opera. The Donmar Warehouse version cast the production in a near dystopian future on the eve of the coronation of the new King William. I never wanted to see another production of Oklahoma until I stumbled across a PBS video of Trevor Nunn’s brilliant rethinking of the show, which starred Hugh Jackman as Curly.
A Noise Within’s new production of the beloved musical Man of La Mancha has been yanked out of the 17th Century and placed squarely in the modern age. In the preshow, the audience is greeted with the low level sounds of an occasional cough, along with the hum of other random, barely discernable sounds such as might occur in a barren place like an industrial prison, which is what the scene design, by Fred Kinney, indicates. Two enormous steel grids, through which the prisoners are seen, hang upstage and can part in the middle like a curtain. There is a rolling ladder, another ladder upstage ascending some twenty feet, as well as other detritus of the modern age like a wheel chair, steel pipes, buckets and mops.
In this production, Miguel de Cervantes (Geoff Elliott) makes his entrance cinched in a harness, and lowered ever so slowly from the grid high above. It is a theatrical choice and lets the audience know that this is a bold departure from the traditional show. I found it kind of thrilling. Innovation brings freshness.
For those unfamiliar with Man of La Mancha, Cervantes is put on trial by the cutthroat prisoners led by the self-styled “Governor” (Gabriel Zenone). When the Governor threatens to burn Cervantes’ manuscript of Don Quixote, the lightening-witted poet suggests that his defense be an improvised entertainment. Of course, he invites the entire ensemble to take part as he acts out the story of Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza (Kasey Mahaffy). Many of the most famous events of the two-volume novel are represented, such as the fight with a windmill and the discovery of his lady love, Dulcinea, who is actually a scullery maid and part time whore named Aldonza (the excellent Cassandra Marie Murphy). Distressed by his madness, his family and friends—niece Antonia (Cassie Simone), her fiancé, Doctor Sanson Carrasco (Michael Uribes), housekeeper (Cynthia Marty), and the local priest, Padre Perez (Jeremy Rabb)—track down the wandering knight.
The show boasts a sterling ensemble of other fine actors. Andrew Joseph Perez doubles as the Muleteer Pedro and the Barber. Tyler Miclean, Jordan Goodsell and Mario Arciniega are the Muleteers Tenorio, Anselmo, and Juan, respectively, while Marissa Ruiz serves as the Guard.
I greatly appreciate the fresh approach to the show, but miss some details that have been cut or altered. The dancers who play horses are gone, as is the scene when Aldonza feeds them. The chess game where Cervantes positions his family on a chessboard with himself at the middle is modified. And some songs have been truncated, most notably Sancho’s charming “A Little Gossip.” In all fairness, new audience members won’t miss these details, but fans of the show will.
The magical transformation of Cervantes into Quixote, a piece of business de rigueur since the original Broadway production, in which a clean-shaven Cervantes changes into Quixote by hollowing his cheeks with make-up and glues wispy eyebrows, mustaches and chin whiskers to his face, is impossible with a full-bearded actor. The compromise is dictated by the fact that Mr. Elliott also plays King Lear in rotating rep. A small sacrifice perhaps.
Mr. Elliott has a rich, robust speaking voice that is deeply resonant. It is an impressive instrument. As he moves into song, however, his phrasing becomes clipped and mannered, which doesn’t serve some of the more lyric pieces like “Dulcinea” and the most iconic number in the show, “The Quest” (“The Impossible Dream”).
The cast, under the direction of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, lands all the humor in Man of La Mancha and much of the pathos. Ms. Murphy sears the heart with her triumphant showpiece “Aldonza.”
This production of Man of La Mancha, with its updated concept and modern, industrial grittiness, is fully embraced by the artistic team of the aforementioned scenic designer, Fred Kinney; lighting designer, Ken Booth; costume designer, Angela Balogh Calin; and sound designer, Martin Carillo.
Man of La Mancha runs in rotating rep with King Lear and Ah, Wilderness through May 21 at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena.