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When one first hears that A Noise Within has reset the powerful 1960s musical “Man of La Mancha” in a modern prison in the developing world, it can make one nervous. After all, it is based not only on one of the great works of international literature, but a historical figure who actually did end up imprisoned by the Inquisition for a segment of time. How can one take the piece out of its historical context? Yet, it is one of the hallmarks of a theatrical work that it can stand up to being reset, both in time and location. The new physical trappings of the tale can inform a wider understanding of the impact of the piece, even if the actual language stays the same.
As a consistent modern interpreter of Shakespeare, ANW co-Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott knows this. Indeed, a work like “Julius Caesar,” about ancient Roman politics, has been reset by various great companies in Mussolini’s Italy, in JFK’s America, or even in a dystopian future without losing its integrity. So, her decision that “La Mancha” can handle the same treatment seems particularly apt.
What may be less wise on Rodriguez-Elliott’s part arises from the demands of this particular work. As musical director Dr. Melissa Sky-Eagle states up front, “Despite the folk-inspired nature of the music itself, the voices required [in “Man of La Mancha”] need to be almost operatic in nature.” While many of the performers – a number of them new to ANW – are very much up to this demand, some of ANW’s stock players are not, really. This creates an imbalance which sometimes distracts from not only the original message of the show, but the additional intent of this new staging.
The story is, of course, a story-within-a-story. Don Miguel de Cervantes, the poet, playwright and novelist seen by many as the Spanish equivalent (at least in literary impact) to William Shakespeare, has been thrown into prison by the Inquisition while awaiting trial. There he must defend himself against the other prisoners, who are out to steal what goods he has. He does so by enacting for them the tale he carries in a manuscript – the manuscript for his finest work, “Don Quixote de La Mancha.” Interrupted on occasion by the guards, he pulls his hearers into his story, both literally – to create the needed characters – and figuratively, as they come to appreciate his view of the world.
For those who know more traditional productions of this work, there are a few things missing. For one, there is no dancing and thus no faux horse and mule. Rather, Don Quixote and Sancho ride mops as if they were hobby horses. The props are less things that Cervantes has brought with him, and more found objects from the prison itself. And that transformative moment when Cervantes becomes Quixote is dulled a bit, in that this Cervantes already has so much facial hair there is little need to add much.
Still, the grime of the prison, the seediness of the inn, and the grim lives of those Quixote encounters are still very much in evidence, and the music – particularly at certain moments – proves as wrenching and powerful as ever. But there is inconsistency in this. Geoff Elliott is Cervantes/Quixote, and his speaking voice has the force and grandeur needed, but this character must be able to sing in a commanding and heartfelt way that Elliott really cannot master. His breathing is often labored, his vocal tone goes chesty, and some of the important lyrics – and the lyrics are particularly important throughout this show – become comparatively unintelligible.
On the other hand, Kasey Mahaffy’s Sancho can sing in a bright and tinny way, and it works, in part because it emphasizes the character’s simple, practical approach to the world. Indeed, one of the few cuts one truly regrets is the shortening of Sancho’s last song, which takes away some of its humor – a humor Mahaffy emphasizes to good effect throughout. Cynthia Marty, as both the nervous housekeeper Quixote has left behind and the annoyed wife of the innkeeper, creates two solidly interesting characters, matched by Gabriel Zenone’s fatalistic innkeeper.
Michael Uribes creates two strong characters, as the reputed leader of the prisoners, and as the pseudo-intellectual fiancé of Quixote’s niece, more worried about what he will inherit than about the man he will inherit from. Cassie Simone sings beautifully as the Quixote’s deeply embarrassed niece. ANW regular Jeremy Rabb has a somewhat less successful time as the gentle padre, who must offer tender songs in a rich tenor voice that Rabb has to work to reach.
By far the finest performance of this production is Cassandra Marie Murphy’s passionate, bitter Aldonza, creating in her portrayal that combination of despair and curiosity which makes Aldonza so interesting, and singing those deep, powerful, angst-ridden songs with a fire you cannot look away from.
Kudos to ANW for using a live orchestra, and one which uses the original orchestration (no strings except a bass and guitars) which gives the enterprise such a direct, and folk-Spanish feel. Fred Kinney’s scenic design gives a sense of space and enclosure – the dual demands of such a dual tale. Angela Balogh Calen’s costumes are largely supposed to look frayed and dirty (as well as reflecting a non-specific prison garb) and all of this comes off well. Lighting is key in this story, and Ken Booth’s design helps carry the story forward in very specific ways, as do Erin Walley’s “found object” props – essential in this prop-heavy show.
In the end, with the new underscore of continuing spaces of despairing imprisonment and horror in our world, the main sentiments of “Man of La Mancha” come through: hope may seem madness, but can lift up those who choose it. And that is just as apt today as it was for the original creators of the musical, or Cervantes himself. It could have been more even in presentation, but it is definitely there.
“Man of La Mancha” plays in repertory with “King Lear” and “Ah, Wilderness”.
What: “Man of La Mancha” When: through May 21; 7 p.m. April 16 and 30, May 21; 7:30 p.m. April 6; 8 p.m. April 7, May 6, 12 and 13; 2 p.m. matinees April 16, 22 and 30, May 7, 13 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org