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Man of La Mancha

Photo by Michael Francis

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Production of MAN OF LA MANCHA. A Musical Drama by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. At the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre. February 25 – March 21, 2015.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre company, apparently – and this production re-enforces such an observation – the most consistent producer of musical theatre in Sydney, at the moment, have now created a revival of the 1965, Tony Award winning Musical Drama (not Comedy), MAN OF LA MANCHA – it was the recipient of 5 Tony Awards. It is very well done. The Director of this company, Jay James-Moody, has done much credit to this work. I cannot think of another Director as capable as he in this genre, and with the illustrious Tony Sheldon in the central role, one could not think of a twosome more likely to succeed at it.

The Set Design element, by Simon Greer, perfectly, atmospherically, creates an environment that serves the dual story telling realities – one in a prison supervised by the Spanish Inquisition where Miguel Cervantes awaits interrogation, the other in the fanciful world of Don Quixote: a play, an improvisation, staged by Cervantes with the other prisoners, to win back his prized possessions (perhaps, including the unpublished novel of the adventures of Don Quixote) confiscated by them. Not only is the production well served by the Design, but also the Reginald Theatre space – transformed into a workable collaborative ‘tardis’ allowing one, for once, to lose oneself imaginatively in the story – not a usual experience in this patently difficult space. This may have something to do with the terrific Lighting Design of Benjamin Brockman – an extremely busy artist at the moment, his work is all over the place, in Sydney, this February. The costumes are mostly, similarly, believable, even if the costumes of the Moorish Dance, and later, the Knight of The Mirrors, were a little over-the-top (OTT!), and rather, really, really useful for the upcoming Mardi Gras Parade –  they are grotesquely hilarious! Costume Design is by Brendan Hay (he also performs in the production).

Musically the show is led by Paul Geddes with his own arrangement of the score, that has the company of actors playing a variety of instruments around the edges of the raked platform of the set. Everybody plays something, from an accordion, or a piano to an egg shaker! It works very well. This is aided by the wonderful and ingeniously consistent contribution from the Sound Designer Jessica James-Moody, that blends the instrument noises well to the singing and spoken voices of the actors. Worth her weight in GOLD, considering the difficult sound experiences one can more often than not have at the Hayes Theatre and its sound woes.

MAN OF LA MANCHA is choreographically made by Ross Chisari – he also plays Sancho Panza (and the bugle) – he may have had two too many ‘jobs’ to pull any one of them well enough off. When this production was announced I was extremely apprehensive as to how the (in)famous Rape of Aldonza dance, would be handled, considering the times we live in (I note it is not listed in the Musical Numbers in the program). The offer from Squabbologic is extremely confronting – as this dance, always, historically, has been – but even more so in this experience of it, with the memory of only four days before of the brilliant Q&A session on ABC television discussing Domestic Violence and Violence Against Women, the panel led by the Australian of the Year, the courageous and astoundingly rational, Rosie Batty. I am sure the artistic problem was discussed, but is it a mis-step of choice? What are the alternatives? I found it an uncomfortable and de-railing moral dilemma – I found it difficult to suspend my inner moral argument about it, during and after, to re-enter the production wholly.

The Ensemble singing was terrific and, individually, I enjoyed the bravura of Marika Aubrey, as Aldonza; the sureness of Glenn Hill, as Padre Perez and the wonder of the outrageous offers of Stephen Anderson, especially, as the Housekeeper.

Could one think of a more likely musical theatre actor in Australia to take on and pull off the demands of the double of Cervantes/Don Quixote, especially as the actor has to produce one of the great songs of the musical theatre: The Quest (The Impossible Dream), than Tony Sheldon? Probably, not. I certainly can’t. In the Squabbologic production, Mr Sheldon’s Cervantes has great dignity and the right gravitas to grasp one swiftly into the conceit of the Book by Dale Wasserman, but I felt there was a mis-judgement of ‘tone’ in his creation of the other part of this role, Don Quixote, which appeared to be one of an inexperienced actor (Cervantes) pretending a tentative old man ‘dodderer’, a man who never truly enters into the innocent majesty of the idealism of this Knight Errant on the plains of La Mancha, one who truly believes, without reservation, all of his adventures. I believe that Cervantes is a better actor than Mr Sheldon believes him to be. This Don Quixote never appeared to be truly invested in the imaginative world of the Knight – it was a pretended game. This choice may have justified the kind of ‘song-spiel’ that Mr Sheldon chooses for much of his heavy vibrato singing – a tentative dodderer – but it removes most of the power of the character, Don Quixote, and the morality of the fable of MAN OF LA MANCHA. I did see, many times, the production presented in Sydney, in 1967, with Charles West as the Don, and the memory is of the ‘Man’/Don Quixote completely lost in the ideals of his imagined adventures, who was shocked into a reality that became a madness when shaken ‘awake’ by his family and the Doctor. Even the ‘abhorrent’ film (1972), with Peter O’Toole, succeeds in this creative difference, and this production’s choice marred my full appreciation of Mr Sheldon’s quest. I was not moved, and the Cervantes exit to face the Inquisition lost its moral power, as I never really believed in his character of Don Quixote.

This MAN OF LA MANCHA at the Seymour Centre, then, though flawed for me, but, still,  is, as withh all the SQuabbologic productions I have seen, worth seeing.

The musical, MAN OF LA MANCHA, began in an Off-Broadway space, not unlike the Reginald. It was plucked and re-vamped for the Great White Way of Broadway and ran for 2,328 performances. It has been revived there some four other times. The last time in 2002.