There was a time, not too long ago, when you would see a show at 5th Avenue Theatre, like the 2014 national tour stop of “Porgy and Bess,” gaze impressed at the effort that went into sets recreating South Carolinian islands and slums, marvel at the opening of George Gershwyn’s “Summertime”... and then, finally and sadly, crane your neck to try and make out DuBose Heyward’s libretto. For years, standout actors would work their asses off producing gorgeous vocals, only to have them delivered to audience’s ears muddied by aging and decrepit speakers.
Thank God that nonsense is over.
Seattle’s biggest musical theater finally replaced its sound system in its most recent capital campaign -- and boy does the 2016-2017 season opener take full advantage.
“Man of La Mancha,” directed by Allison Narver, is a splash-bang spectacle of visuals and sound. The musical classic is served well by expert comic timing and spectacle, and rarely falters.
Other than an aesthetic choice to bring the story into a more contemporary environment (more on that in a bit), this version of “La Mancha” otherwise adheres to the loose adaptation of “Don Quixote” Dale Wasserman released in 1964. The story follows “Don Quixote” author Miguel de Cervantes (Rufus Bonds Jr.) and his personal servant (Don Darryl Rivera) as they’re imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. In addition to judgment under the Inquisition, the pair soon discover that they’ll also be “tried” by their fellow prisoners before being stripped of their possessions. In a desperate bid to save his unfinished manuscript, Cervantes leads the prisoners in a staging of his play about an old nobleman who embraces delusions of knighthood to cope with the bleakness of reality.
Bonds was brought in late as Cervantes/Quixote to replace the originally cast actor, but you would be hard-pressed to guess it. The Broadway veteran floats seamlessly between his dual roles, lending Cervantes a stoic wisdom and Quixote the raw energy of someone in the midst of a manic episode.
And Bonds is definitely funny playing up Quixote’s (relatively) benign insanity, but he works best in tandem with Rivera. As Sancho, Rivera’s roly-poly energy lends a Laurel and Hardy dynamic to the duo’s escapades. His timing in “I Really Like Him” brings the comedy of the song home.
In fact, the show’s comic timing is strong across the board. Allen Fitzpatrick, playing both the prison’s “governor” and an innkeeper in the Quixote play, was a particular favorite. As the innkeeper, Fitzpatrick responds to Quixote’s demand for pomp and circumstance with a dry “oh whatever” resignation that throws the knight’s smothering self-importance into stark relief.
Aldonza (Nova Y. Paton) presents an unfortunate weak spot for the production. The character is an inn server and prostitute who gets a strong introduction in “It’s All the Same,” which establishes her as a world-weary realist equal parts amused and tired by the selfish predictability of the men in her life. Quixote, of course, sees her as the royal and pure lady Dulcinea. Their chemistry works well, at first, when Aldonza reacts to his courtliness with disgust. But her emotional trajectory is supposed to move on to enchantment and hurt and, for whatever reason, that never happens. Paton seems to go through the motions, never selling the viewer on why she goes along with Quixote, after all.
The aesthetic choice to bring “La Mancha’s” setting into a contemporary (future?) dystopia is confounding. On the one hand, it provides an excuse for a little extra oomph from the lighting and sound effects to express the oppression of imprisonment.
And it just looks really, amazingly cool.
On the other hand, it’s not a choice that adds to the story. If you dig around the program, you’ll find an explanation from director Narver about the Inquisition’s relevance to modern refugee camps and political prisons. But it’s not an obvious connection when presented without comment. Maybe it would have worked six years ago, when Guantanamo Bay was still in the fore of the American subconscious. Ultimately, Narver has exercised the same reasoning that’s given us dozens of “fresh” gangland retellings of William Shakespeare’s plays — fun in form, but thin on function.