CEDAR CITY — Man of La Mancha is one of those shows that many people have heard, but few know well. The SimonFest has a worthwhile production of this musical playing now, and its cast makes the show worth the trip to Cedar City.
Based on Miguel de Cervantes’s The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. The story was adapted into a musical, with a script by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion. In this adaptation, Cervantes is in a prison holding room, awaiting his judgment. While there, he is interrogated by his fellow prisoners about value of storytelling. Cervantes responds by pulling the other prisoners into his telling of the story of Alonso Quijana/Don Quixote, the gentle, delusional man who sees the world through a haze of fantasy and the pursuit of a noble quest. The structure also pulls the audience into Cervantes’s imagination and embark on a lovely journey of the imagination.
The stage portrays the communal room of a prison in Seville, and scenic designer Brad Shelton has created a serviceable, recognizable space. The audience understands the ominous space of the prison, with stone walls, iron grates, and a large staircase that lowers and raises to admit prisoners occasionally. Yet while functional and utilitarian, the most important part of the set, the staircase, is not terribly ominous. In a story that lacks a real antagonist onstage, that staircase, which personifies the Spanish Inquisition, could be a terrifying presence which strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of prisoner and onlooker alike. Unfortunately, Shelton misses a tremendous opportunity here, choosing instead an unimposing flight of steps tucked away in a corner of the stage almost as an afterthought. Still, the rest of the set is a suitable space for this cast to create various locales simply and easily.
Director Brandon Burk has assembled a stellar cast to bring these characters to life. They are all outstanding vocalists, bravely tackling this notoriously difficult musical score. Particularly commendable is Brandon Bruce as Sancho Panza, whose lyric tenor is beautiful. Likewise, Christopher Whiteside as the Padre has a truly heavenly voice. Tamera Merkley as Aldonza/Dulcinea sings the role with grace and sass and lightness and bravery.
All the actors perform beautifully, but I must confess (somewhat unoriginally) that my favorite was Richard Bugg as Cervantes/Quijana/Quixote. He is stunning. His rich and warm voice shows he is a masterful storyteller, easily captivating his audience with his words. Bugg embodies this role perfectly, bringing heart and beauty to this role. It is truly lovely to watch him to perform. I suspect that this is a “bucket list” role for the founder and executive producer of the SimonFest in its 20th anniversary season. Sometimes these vanity projects backfire, but in this case the self-casting succeeds admirably.
Music director Lawrence Johnson must have been thrilled with the company he got to work with. The musical score is challenging, with shifting time signatures and keys, and there are moments when the actors struggled a bit with the accompaniment, but as they get more performances under their belts, that should smooth out.
The storytelling element of the show starts out fun and creative, with literally everything needed in the way of props and costumes coming out of the large trunk that Cervantes brings into the prison. The trunk itself becomes a table, a bench, a bed as needed, which is delightful. But this story construct peters out a bit as the show goes on, which was disappointing. The costume design by Jaimee Markham was ordinary; everyone is dressed in common peasant clothing with added pieces (shawls, cowls, aprons) to embody other characters as needed. My one criticism is that everything was far too clean and tidy. Actors looked like they were on their way to a country fair, rather than having spent weeks or months in a filthy prison. Props have a similar cleanliness. For example, Quixote sends Sancho to beg a “token” of his lady Dulcinea to carry into battle. A token is typically a silk sash or ribbon, but in the script Dulcinea (i.e., Aldonza) peevishly sends him a kitchen rag instead. The rag is supposed to be disgusting, nasty, sour-smelling and vile, which makes it all the more ridiculous when Quixote treats it as a treasure and caresses his face. Yet the rag Aldonza give Sancho in this production is a clean bright white cloth. It is a minor detail, but one that, if handled differently, could have augmented the scene.
Choreography (by Tamera Merkley) was minimal, which is fine for this show that is more about music and acting than it is about dance. However, there are some fun moments with a troupe of traveling gypsies who rob Quixote and Sancho of all their possessions. Fight choreography (by Brandon Bruce) was more prevalent, specifically a comedic battle between Quixote, Sancho, Aldonza and the muleteers, which was fun and will become smoother and slicker with more runs. The rape scene was clear but not too graphic, and also felt very cautious and a little fumbling. Again, this could be solved with time.
Overall, this is a solid production of Man of La Mancha, a beautiful musical that deserves to be seen more. It is a star vehicle for a strong, charismatic leading man, with great secondary characters, and SimonFest has done a lovely job with it. It is very worth the price of the ticket and the time investment (two hours without intermission), especially to see these actors tell a story that they believe in.