A miraculous — and ultimately tragic — aspect of being human is our ability to envision a world more perfect than what reality can ever afford us. Or, as the signature song from “Man of La Mancha” succinctly puts it: to dream that impossible dream.
A fine revival from A Noise Within in Pasadena reminds us why the Dale Wasserman-Mitch Leigh-Joe Darion 1964 adaptation of the Don Quixote story, for all its familiarity, endures as one of the most substantive entries in the musical theater canon.
The production updates company co-artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s 2007 taut, intermission-less staging with a gritty, contemporary look and feel. Scenic designer Fred Kinney’s stark industrial scaffolding and Angela Balogh Calin’s ragged, soot-encrusted costumes situate the piece in a sinister, nameless modern prison, heightening the urgency of playwright Wasserman’s inventive riff on the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes.
In this remounting of the show’s nested musical-within-a-play format, Geoff Elliott reprises his dual lead roles as the fictional Don Quixote and his fictionalized creator — assured, sharply differentiated characters that benefit from a decade’s worth of fine-tuning.
In the framing story, Elliott as the imprisoned Cervantes exudes energetic craft and wit to appease his menacing fellow-captives by portraying his literary creation in a makeshift musical. Slipping in and out of his elderly Don Quixote persona, Elliott, though known primarily as a dramatic actor, complements physical transformation with a rich, assured baritone, making the wannabe knight errant persona both unhinged and endearing.
A big part of the staging fun is the prisoners’ inventive use of their limited resources as props (imagine Quixote and whimsical sidekick Sancho Panza, played by Kasey Mahaffy, straddling mops for their horses). Situating the eight-piece orchestra in a rear balcony furthers the claustrophobic acoustics of a subterranean dungeon.
The other prisoners enlisted in Cervantes’ makeshift musical are cast with some professional-caliber singers, though an overreliance on reverb begs for some sound-design adjustment. Cassandra Marie Murphy proves equally adept with belting and pitch-perfect nuance as the skanky barmaid whom Quixote idolizes into his chaste fair lady, while Jeremy Rabb and Michael Uribes bring strong voices to the priest and doctor bent on “curing” the old man’s delusions.
The disconnect between illusion and reality is the common theme in A Noise Within’s repertory season. The young hero of “Ah, Wilderness!” sheds naïve adolescent fantasies in a gentle coming-of-age comedy by Eugene O’Neill, while the self-deluded King Lear faces the deconstruction of his entire identity in Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy.
Even as it takes a bittersweet musical poke at overreaching imagination, “Man of La Mancha,” nevertheless, celebrates it as the noblest thing about us. Fans of the show will not be disappointed, and first-timers would be hard-pressed to find a better introduction.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Man of La Mancha’
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: Runs in repertory through May 21
Information: (626) 356-3100 Ext. 1, www.anoisewithin.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
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