Oh what a few years on Broadway in the smash hit Disney musical can do. Don Darryl Rivera is an impish, butterball of a comic actor/singer, popular in the Puget Sound for much of the last decade returns to Seattle after 2.5 years (with no end in sight) of playing Iago in the smash Aladdin, to steal every minute he is onstage in the 5th Avenue’s impressive Man of La Mancha.
Not seen in a major 5th Avenue production since veteran John Cullum headed a highly respectable version there in the 1995-96 season, the smash 1966 Broadway Tony Award Winner for Best Musical is musical with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh. It is adapted from Wasserman’s non-musical 1959 teleplay I, Don Quixote, which was in turn inspired by Miguel de Cervantes and his seventeenth-century masterpiece Don Quixote. It tells the story of the “mad” knight, Don Quixote, as a play within a play, performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as he awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition. The work is not, and does not pretend to be, a faithful rendition of either Cervantes’ life or of Don Quixote. Ironically, director Allison Narver’s nuanced, textually faithful, but scenically re-conceived version isn’t your Mama’s La Mancha as seen on Broadway, nor thankfully is it a ruinous, 1972 version with Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren. It is however a production that doesn’t let its redone appearance (a bold Matthew Smucker designed neo-Nazi type concentration camp in a time/location unnamed) upstage a script and score that still ranks as one of the best of its era.
Cervantes/Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana in this production is played by Broadway’s likable Rufus Bonds, Jr. Bonds has a rich voice, and builds audience empathy for his characters, particularly Quixote himself. Initially his Cervantes has a quirky speech pattern/affectation which made me giggle uncomfortably early on. But with swagger and skill, he does wonders with the role of Quixote (aka doddering nobleman Quijana) and makes his big numbers count, especially “Dulcinea” and “The Impossible Dream.” That had so many saloon singer type cover recordings in the mid-1960’s, it took me somewhat by surprise by its enduring power, hearing it in context again.
Nova Payton (a standout at the 5th in A Night with Janis Joplin last season) tops that work here as Aldonza/Dulcinea, a “kitchen slut” whom Quixote envisions as royal angel on Earth. Payton has more vocal solo moments in the show than her co-leads and all three of her vocal turns especially the plaintive “What Does He Want of Me?” and the fiery “Aldonza” are evidence that this is a young leading lady on the rise. As for the aforementioned Rivera, he stumbles, bumbles, and sassily sings his way into your hearts as Sancho Panza, Quixote’s squire. He even wins a well-earned ovation from the audience with his turn on “I Like Him”, one of the rare blah songs in a generally superior score.
Director Narver’s well-chosen local cast includes Allen Fitzpatrick engagingly perplexed as The Innkeeper (Governor), Eric Ankrim in a change-of-pace antagonist role as Dr. Carrasco (Duke), Jose Gonzales as mad as a hatter traveling Barber, Brandon O’Neill, swarthy and brutish as Pedro, leader of the Muleteers, Lauren Du Pree as Quijana’s conflicted (but sweetly soprano) niece Antonia, Marlette Buchanan as a rather too self-satisfied Housekeeper and, best of all, Village Theatre and 5th Avenue fave Nick DeSantis as The Padre, whose interpretation of the role offers a bit more humor, and whose solo song “To Each His Dulcinea” is not only a contender for best in the score, but also it allows DeSantis to show-off his rich, characterful voice in a manner his plentiful past comic roles would allow.
Choreographer Maria Torres provides electricity, sex and humor in a show that is usually not thought of as a dancer’s show, while musical director Cynthia Korman Westphal and the expected stellar orchestra musicians hired at the 5th are an immeasurable asset to the 5th is a ravishing, pricy (the money well-spent) new Sound System, which ranks with the best theatre’s in the country. Smucker’s scenic design lead, but satisfies regardless, and LB Morse’s lighting design is one of the best I have seen at the 5th.
Man of La Mancha is an impossible dream come true and a timely choice in a world where real sanity may well lie in madness. My request to the 5th’s powers that be, who love to do the occasional lost gem of a musical, is to bring back Don Darryl Rivera in a star role with a heavy hitter leading lady like Jessica Skerritt, and watch it go through the roof. Little Me, maybe?
Man of La Mancha runs through Oct. 30, 2016 at The 5th Avenue Theatre (1308 5th Avenue, Seattle). For single tickets (starting at $29) and information, please visit 5thavenue.org, call the Box Office at (206) 625-1900 or visit the Box Office at 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle.