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La Mancha Meets Marat/Sade in a Bravura Production

Ed Rampell: By plunging a 21st century context into the opening, A Noise Withing opens the door to referencing our own times, as Cervantes/Quixote not only faces a trial by his fellow inmates but also judgment by the Inquisition.
man of la mancha

Geoff Elliott (Don Quixote) and Kasey Mahaffy (Sancho Panza). ( All photos by Craig Schwartz)

MAN OF LA MANCHA Theatre Review

A Noise Within’s uplifting Man of La Mancha is arguably one of the best shows in town. Based on Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century novel Don Quixote, this musical with book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh, La Mancha became one of Broadway’s immortal masterpieces, with the 1965 production winning five Tonys (including Best Musical and for its peerless star, Richard Kiley), running for 2,328 performances, with four revivals on the Great White Way.

La Mancha’s well-deserved success is due, in part, to its exquisite songs that are so beautiful this music could teach larks how to warble. But the music, lyrics and plot also perfectly captured that sixties idealism which subsequent musicals, such as Hair, would likewise come to express. Not long after Dr. King’s lofty “I have a dream” speech, Don Quixote sang about his “Impossible Dream”, wherein the aging, noble knight pledges:

“To right the unrightable wrong…
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march,
March into hell
For that heavenly cause…”

man of la mancha

Geoff Elliott (Don Quixote) and Kasey Mahaffy (Sancho Panza).

And on his quixotic quest to reclaim a lost Camelot (and, at his best, to end a war and ensure equal rights), echoing Don Quixote, Bobby Kennedy mused, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why?... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” (“The Impossible Dream” was RFK’s favorite song.)

As directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, ANW’s one-acter has added a modernist twist to La Mancha’s beginning. When the proverbial curtain lifts, with its prison bar motif, the three-quarters thrust stage looks, perhaps, like Gitmo, with a cast of what seems to be political prisoners. By plunging a 21st century context into the opening, ANW opens the door to referencing our own times, as Cervantes/Quixote (the stellar Geoff Elliott, ANW Producing Artistic Director) not only faces a trial by his fellow inmates but also judgment by the Inquisition. All this lends La Mancha a vibe similar to Marat/Sade’s, Peter Weiss’ 1963 French Revolution parable that is, for my money, the best post-Brecht political play of the 20th century.

Now, it’s interesting to note that, to the best of my recollection, unlike in the original Man of La Mancha, in the gospel according to ANW, Cervantes/Quixote is not to be examined by the Spanish Inquisition per se. So, just as the original Broadway hit captured the quintessence of sixties optimism, this rendition reflects its times, too. Living in an era when Washington’s newly installed repressive regime calls the press “the enemy of the people” and tells journalists to “shut up and listen,” and praises autocrats abroad and toasts them at the White House, today’s free thinkers are up against another kind of Inquisition.

With Artists Rise Up Los Angeles returning for an encore on April 18 at Atwater Village Theatre and Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall at the Fountain Theatre, the stage world is resisting Trump in L.A. and beyond, and this La Mancha seems to be part of the theatrical moment of defiance.

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La Mancha has a play-within-a-play structure, as Cervantes tells the tale of Don Quixote, the so-called Knight of the Woeful Countenance. Is he an idealist or a madman as he rides about the Spanish countryside, trying to set injustices right according to an outmoded code of chivalry? During his peregrinations the 50-ish knight-errant is accompanied by his loyal sidekick, the simpleton squire Sancho Panza (Kasey Mahaffy), who justifies his steadfast devotion in the droll song “I Really Like Him.”

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Along the way, at what Quixote imagines is a castle but is really just a dowdy tavern, they encounter a scullery maid and unhappy hooker Aldonza (Cassandra Marie Murphy), whom the knight dubs Dulcinea. He devotes himself to the wench whom he perceives to be such a fine refined lady.

Much of the play’s derring-do is rendered with imaginative whimsy that would put big budget studio CGI special effects-meisters to shame. For instance, Don Quixote’s proverbial tilting at windmills (which he believes to be a giant) is carried off with witty, inventive aplomb which this reviewer won’t spoil for you by describing. Likewise, a simple household item used for cleaning is transmogrified into a trusty steed, much as Picasso magically turned a found bicycle seat and handlebars into a bull. I won’t spill the beans on the glorious grand finale, except to say that scenic designer Fred Kinney perfectly expresses the show’s idealistic elan with what happens to the dungeon’s bars on what is often a bare stage. Props master Erin Walley also deserves props, as does costume designer Angela Balogh Calin, who illustrate the illusion that we are witnessing 16th century Spain.

The musical’s crown jewels are those mellifluous songs, expertly, ebulliently rendered by Elliott, Murphy and company. Of course, there are the beloved ballads, such as the title song, aka “I, Don Quixote”, “Dulcinea” and “The Quest”/”The Impossible Dream”, that are simply unforgettable. But having seen Kiley on Broadway lo! many moons ago, I had not remembered that other divine songs, such as “Little Bird, Little Bird” and “I’m Only Thinking of Him”, are also part of Leigh and Darion’s canon of quixotic classics. The singers are, gladly, accompanied by a septet of live musicians from on high, enhancing the aural ambiance beyond measure.

Cassandra Marie Murphy (Aldonza) and Geoff Elliott (Don Quixote).

Cassandra Marie Murphy (Aldonza) and Geoff Elliott (Don Quixote).

Don Quixote may be nuts, but as Billy Joel sang: “You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” In his divine madness the Man of La Mancha makes wretches see their better selves, their higher angels, not least of all, the battered, beaten down Aldonza, who discovers new dignity as the sweet lady Dulcinea. Indeed, this musical speaks - and sings! - to all that is best in human beings, which is why audiences continue to so rhapsodically respond to it.

This two hour or so jaw-dropping celebration of optimistic idealism is presented by ANW’s marathon thespians sans intermission. With its theme of visionaries versus book burners, La Mancha is an enchanting, enthralling antidote for our trumped up ages with its own not-so-grand inquisitors. One simple yet elegant Spanish word sums up Geoff Elliott and this production: BRAVO!!!

A Noise Within’s Man of La Mancha plays through May 21 in repertory with Shakespeare’s King Lear and Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! as part of ANW’s “Beyond Our Wildest Dreams” season celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary at: A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: (636)356-3100, ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org. April 22 and May 6 are called The Great Escape, because both Lear and La Mancha - the pair of them starring that marvelous marathon man Geoff Elliott - are performed, along with special dinners between shows with cast and crew members. Free parking in an adjacent garage.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Esther Shub’s documentary The Fall of the Romanovs on Friday, 7:30 p.m., April 28, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com.