MAN OF LA MANCHA
MAN OF LA MANCHA, Squabbalogic at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 25- March 21 2015. Photography by Michael Francis: main - the company with Tony Sheldon; right: Marika Aubrey and Tony Sheldon. A gallery of Michael Francis’s production images is on the stagenoise.com Facebook page.
The images and ideas that live inside the head of Jay James-Moody mean that the rest of us, sooner or later, become privy to wondrous and heart-wrenching sights and sounds. This time he has taken the hoary old warhorse from 1965 (when it already seemed like an ancient) and refashioned it into a thrilling, inspiring and emotionally resonant night in the theatre.
James-Moody’s key stroke of genius in getting this production off the ground was to secure Tony Sheldon – Broadway and all-round worldwide musical megastar – for the central role of Don Quixote/Miguel Cervantes. The old man of untarnished dreams and pure heart must convince and pull our hearts in the same upward if seemingly impossible direction if we are to believe. Sheldon can do that – who could forget the weary strength and sweetness of his Bernadette in Priscilla, the trans woman who seeks nothing more than the love of a good man?
Sheldon brings those same qualities of strength and sweetness and utter conviction to play here, so when exasperated tavern tart Aldonza/Dulcinea (Marika Aubrey), bemused object of his chaste love, asks Sancho Panza (Ross Chisari) why he is loyal to this crazy old fool, it’s not only the squire who shrugs and sings, “Because I like him...” The audience is also under his spell – of seeing the best, believing the best and hoping for the best in everyone and everything he meets; that tilting at windmills and refusing the darkness is the only way to be. Basically, when Sheldon’s Don beckons, it’s not only his dopy Sancho Panza who will finally follow him anywhere.
Based on Cervantes’ seminal Spanish novel of 1605-1620 (when it was first published in English), Man of La Mancha came into being when Dale Wasserman, riffing freely off the monumental original, wrote the book, Mitch Leigh the score and Joe Darion the lyrics for a show that won five Tonys for its first Broadway run. Since then it has gone on to become one of the most performed musicals, in various languages, around the world.
Most often – including the last Sydney production in 2002 – the piece is given a bombastic and overblown treatment that follows on from the most famous song having been hijacked by generations of booming baritone crooners. Bellowing and emoting “Dream the Impossible Dream” without for one minute understanding the context and meaning of the song ruins it just as much as the habitually lugubrious and daft renditions of “Send in the Clowns” (Stephen Sondheim’s threnody for Desiree Armfeldt and lost love) have turned that beautiful thing into a bad cabaret joke.
So...accompanied by a beautifully and touchingly clunky and wheezy orchestration and divinely schooled voices (the singing actors play a variety of instruments with varying degrees of belief and expertise, musical direction and arrangements Paul Geddes) Sheldon makes his musical moments an integral part of the characterisation and story. The result – with the backing of a fine company – is of a fresh and spectacularly meaningful show.
The design – an ingeniously ramshackle set of nothing much that suggests a fetid gloomy dungeon of the Spanish Inquisition and a roadside inn, by Simon Greer with Benjamin Brockman’s moody and magnificent lighting – utilises all aspects of the Reginald’s two-tiered design. Equally inventive and ratty costumes by Brendan Hay (so that’s where all the Barbie legs went) and good-eared sound design by Jessica James-Moody round off a creative team that couldn’t be bettered on Broadway or the West End.
While Ross Chisari’s Sancho Panza is a little too schoolboyishly chirpy, his doubling as the company choreographer suggests he might have been a bit distracted by those duties – and he’s a very good choreographer. As the tart with the reluctant heart, Marika Aubrey is a revelation of angular, angry sexiness that finally melts to anguished realisation of the good in a man. And this despite – or perhaps because – she is the focus of the show’s darkest and most shocking sequence: when the muleteers harmonise like angels in the ballad “Little Bird, Little Bird” while gang-raping and beating up this strong and independent woman. There’s a graphic lesson there in the current climate of bullying and disdain for women demonstrated by our leader.
On a lighter and really delicious note, from The Gruffalo onwards, Stephen Anderson has proved himself to be one of the most accomplished comedic actors around. And in this production we learn he is a soprano of crazy boldness (the Housekeeper) and he also makes a very fine if utterly ridiculous Rosinante – Don Quixote’s horse.
As Dr Carrasco, the Duke, the evil Knight of the Mirrors and also an accordion player, Joanna Weinberg’s choice of show for a return to the musical theatre stage (something she’s not done since 1990 apparently) is fortuitous: she’s awfully good and a riveting presence. Another grounding and visually arresting performance is Lawrence Coy as the Governor and the Innkeeper – depending on the state of the Don’s delusions. For the remainder of the company, there isn’t a weak link among the singing actors and yet another reminder of the depth of talent in this field in Sydney; take a bow: Hayden Barltrop, Reece Budin, Courtney Glass, Brendan Hay, Glenn Hill, Rob Johnson, Shondelle Pratt, Kyle Sapsford and Richard Woodhouse.
As a realiser of dreams, Jay James-Moody is one of the most thrilling talents of the new generation of musical theatre makers and in choosing to reimagine and re-stage Man of La Mancha and get Tony Sheldon along for the ride he’s given us one of the shows of 2015.