Cabaret – Theatre Review: Spotlight Youth Theatre, Glendale

From the stylized image of Liza Minnelli on the poster, you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe the new and highly audacious production of the musical Cabaret at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale had some connection with the ‘72 movie. There’s none, just the image. In fact, not only has the show little to do with the Bob Fosse directed film, there’s little resemblance to the original stage production that opened on Broadway in ‘66. This Cabaret is the closer to the daring ‘93 London revival, a totally redesigned creation, as different from the film as the film was from the sixties stage original.

The fact that SYT decided to go with the more adult, highly sexualized adaptation rather than the original, more conventional version makes for an interesting debate, adding fuel to the fiery discussion of what is considered suitable and not so suitable for performance by a youth organization. But the Glendale based youth theatre has courted controversy before.

In 2016, it’s production of Spring Awakening initially raised eyebrows; the fact that it even attempted a production was a surprise. But the end result was quite remarkable. Part of its success was the casting of adolescents in adolescent roles – it was age appropriate. And while you could argue that only actors older with a more mature disposition could convincingly play those teenage characters and fully understand the significance of their new, developing emotions, the young SYT cast successfully fleshed out what was required to make it work, made all the more effective by having the adult roles played by adults.

Cabaret is a different animal. Here, all the roles are adult. With themes of homosexuality, pregnancy, abortion, antisemitism, plus the rising threat and ultimate horror of Nazism, the John Kander, Fred Ebb musical is not only a challenge for any youthful cast, but also one for audiences not necessarily keen to see adult content presented by such young faces. It has to be true that not all of the cast members here could fully grasp the kind of torment that many of these Cabaret characters are undergoing – academically perhaps, but at such an age where most of life’s challenges and disappointments have yet to be experienced, there’s no possible way of fully grasping the enormity of what is happening; there’s no internal emotion yet experienced from which a young actor can draw. Plus, it doesn’t help that some of the more adult characters from an older generation are clearly played by younger looking performers who, with either a graying wig or an obvious false mustache, can’t help but remain appearing young. It can be jarring, especially when, for a good length, the show has successfully managed to suspend disbelief on anything age related. But here’re some things to consider that makes this Cabaret surprisingly accomplished. Besides an effectively designed set by Michael Armstrong that uses the available space of Spotlight’s confined black box theatre area extremely well, director Kenny Grossman has struck good fortune with a new generation of young actors wanting to perform.

The young girls of Berlin’s seedy nightclub, the Kit Kat Klub, look as though they might actually perform there. In a pre-war city once known for its decadence, it’s probable that many of those performers were runaways, hired for their availability more than their talent, with little concern from management as to whether they were legally old enough to work or not. That sense of reality during the opening number, Wilkommen, is heightened even further by the low-rent costumes of the girls, the occasional and intentionally clumsiness in their choreography, the tired, dead-pan appearance of their pale, almost lifeless faces, and the blemishes, bruises, and, if you look close enough, the hickeys on their exposed skin. They’re like the walking dead as a dance troupe, where life, at such an early age, has already sucked them dry; all they have left to market is themselves which will soon burn out. The look and their moves are extremely effective, and Wilkommen, backed by an outstanding six-piece live band under Ken Goodenberger’s musical direction, plus Tina Caspary-Cyphert’s scene-setting choreography, is a musical highlight.

There’s also the believable casting of Vincent Pugliese as Kit Kat’s Emcee played, not as the tuxedo clad creepy ghoul of Broadway’s original, but as developed by Alan Cummings in the revival; a slinky, sexualized character in baggy pants and suspenders who doesn’t simply enter on stage but slithers. Pugliese lacks the obsequious, slick sensuousness of Cummings, but he creates something of his own. He’s the perverse one-man Greek chorus who not only draws the audience in, but also loiters and observes moments that occur outside of the nightclub, like a slyly demented apparition from Insidious, one that lingers unseen over your shoulder, finding cruel humor expressed by a cunning smile that comes at the torment of another.

Plus, the characters of both the American writer through whom all events are seen, Cliff Bradshaw (Aaron Brown) and the German civilian, Ernst Ludwig (Jack Taylor) are cast well, both actors conveying a sense of maturity in sound and appearance that convinces. On stage, they look and deliver dialog in a voice that suggests they are considerably older than they are. When Taylor’s Ludwig later shows his real colors, he’s an all too real, threatening Nazi presence, while Brown’s conflicted emotions of Bradshaw, torn between his homosexuality, his feelings for the show’s leading lady, and the frustration of knowing he needs to leave Berlin as soon as possible, is persuasively conveyed. It’s only in a later scene when he shouts with frustration during a confrontation with Sally Bowles that the reality of the character temporarily drops. He suddenly sounds less like an adult losing his temper and more like a teenager raising his voice.

But the real age-appropriate performance, and to whom this production truly belongs, is newcomer to the Spotlight stage, Sophia Donnell as Sally. Based on the real-life English performer and later social activist, Jean Ross, who was just a naive nineteen year-old when she moved to Berlin in ‘31 and worked as a singer in low-rent cabarets, Donnell is not only close in age to the real inspiration for Sally, but successfully creates the illusion that we’re watching the character as she was meant to be portrayed.

She not only maintains a good English accent throughout but her exchanges with Bradshaw have a natural quality to their delivery. When she performs Maybe This Time, she’s singing in character, but when she belts the song’s climactic notes, there’s a moment where it’s clear that the young performer is by far a superior singer than the mediocre Sally Bowles could ever aspire to be.

But the big moment is the title number, Cabaret. The song was made famous by Liza Minnelli’s glittering, showstopping rendition that ended the film with the dazzle of flashing showbiz lights behind her, but as presented in the show, things are quite different. Sung with the tear-stained face of someone suddenly aware of a life full of all the wrong choices, yet stubbornly clueless as to any sense of a future direction, the song is delivered with a savage, raw intensity. When Sally storms off the stage, audiences automatically cheer the performance, but the most complimentary response should be the one that was always intended – a stunned silence. With all the emotional highs and lows required to make Sally Bowles work, newcomer Donnell’s performance is quite the accomplishment, and a welcome surprise. She can really act.

Pictures by Joanne Wastchack

Cabaret continues at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale until Sunday, January 28

Posted in Theatre

12 Strong – Film Review

The only way home is winning,” states Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) to his Chief Warrent Officer, Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon). In the new war drama, 12 Strong, based on real events, Nelson heads a team of U.S. Special Forces who, with the assistance of CIA paramilitary officers, are sent to Afghanistan to face the Taliban, just weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001. In the end, there are several things you can take from the film, but ultimately, winning is what it’s really about.

The film is based on a true story, a declassified true story, with events largely unknown until author Doug Stanton wrote his book Horse Soldiers, based upon the governmental information released years after the event. It’s certainly a fascinating tale, and one that deserves to be told – heroism and sacrifice for the greater good must always be acknowledged – but there’s something cloudy in this particular telling.

Considering the hell this group of Army Green Berets went through (they were Operational Detachment Alpha 595) and what they finally accomplished, there’s no taking away the impact of their achievement. They brought home the bacon, so to speak, even if they couldn’t talk about it once they arrived back on American shores. But even though what they achieved struck a temporary blow against the Taliban, once the film is over and the cheers of an appreciative theater audience watching a win for the good guys subside, when you look at the bigger picture, you can’t help wondering exactly how much of a blow was really accomplished. It’s seventeen years later, and the problems of Afghanistan remain; the Taliban still exists.

In its favor, the film is not the obvious flag-waver some might expect, even though audiences overseas will undoubtedly see it that way. From the poster and much of the advertising hype, marketing has presented an impression of Americans gloriously charging for the greater good into battle on horseback. Perhaps there’s no coincidence that their home-base in the Afghan desert is called The Alamo. But even though there is a charge, it doesn’t come with quite the gung ho, grandstanding cheers the poster leads you to expect. Those men were on horseback because it was the only way of getting to the point where they needed to be. This is no foolhardy Charge of the Light Brigade, where honor and glory eclipsed good sense and battlefield logic. For these men and the task they were given, there was no other way.

The assignment is presented simply, even if the ability to accomplish it was not. The 12 strong force of Americans land in Afghanistan where they team up with a Northern Alliance warlord, General Abdul Rahid Dostrum (Navid Negahban). Together, their aim is to capture the desert city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a Taliban stronghold. But in order to get there, the force needs to battle its way through several smaller villages, capturing each one along the way until the allies finally reach their target. It’s an epic story, and one that should be told, but it’s in this particular telling where the film lets itself down. The intentions of 12 Strong are honorable, but what may have the heart of a real-life drama with an opportunity to get to know the lives of the men involved, ultimately comes across as simply a surface tale, told with video game sensibilities. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer knows a young audience. He knows what it wants and what it doesn’t want, and it doesn’t want Lawrence of Arabia.

Each village the team faces is akin to a game level, with points earned along the way until the fighters finally get to where they need to be in order to win. The final confrontation is impressive (all the more impressive knowing that it actually occurred), but there’s a lot on the battlefront that takes place long before Mazar-i-Sharif, and it doesn’t tell a story. 12 Strong doesn’t appear interested in the smaller, more interesting human details, which is what this story should really be about. It relates action.

None of the men have any experience riding horses, and are shocked to find that horseback will be their only mode of transport, yet there’s not a moment seen where the inexperienced riders grapple with their clumsiness; they simply get on and ride off into the desert. Clearly, director Nicolai Fuglsig’s film isn’t interested in the details, or exploring the depth of character required to fully appreciate how it felt for these men to be where they were; he just needs to put all the players where they physically need to be in order to fight, and then fight some more. As portrayed in the film, Hemsworth’s captain is right; the only way home for these men is winning, and in this big screen version of the tale, the only way to win is to play the game.

MPAA rating: R Length: 130 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Show Boat – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

It was the first of its kind. A play with music and song, where the songs propelled the plot instead of stopping it. So, in 1927, when the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein ll musical in two acts, Show Boat opened on Broadway, the course of the American musical theatre was changed forever. With that in mind, watching any new production of Show Boat is like witnessing a further chapter in the on-going history of this truly great musical.

Since its premiere, even though the arc of the story always remains the same, significant changes have occurred. The original show ran for just over four and a half hours, but depending on when and where a revised production was performed, edits were made, songs were either cut or moved around, the overture continually changed, and some characters slightly altered. Also, because of the show’s themes of race, segregation, Jim Crow laws, plus betrayal, and enduring love, depending upon what part of the country the show was playing, certain segments and subplots sensitive to the area were removed altogether. In its way, it’s fair to say that each new production you’ll see is unique, including the new production from Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria, now in performance until February 10.

Based on the lengthy, sprawling novel by Edna Ferber, who really did her homework when researching riverboat life, the story revolves around the lives of the performers, the crew, and the workers of the Mississippi River show boat, Cotton Blossom, helmed by Cap’n Andy (an affable Mark Tumey) and his wife, Parthy (a suitably stern Gerri Weagraff). It spans a period of more than forty years, from 1887 to 1927, which, at the time of the show’s opening, would have brought the story up to present-day.

Its original director, impresario and producer of the Ziegfeld Follies, plus a slew of musical revues, Florenz Ziegfeld, took a career risk by producing Broadway’s first musical play, but there were safety nets. If there’s one thing Broadway loves, it’s stories about itself. By developing a production with a foundation built on tales of showbiz, variety, and music hall, there remained a certain amount of audience familiarity built in to the narrative. Show Boat may have seemed a radical departure for something presented under the name of Ziegfeld, but there was much within the production that gave the man, known as ‘The Glorifier of the American Girl,’ an opportunity to deliver the kind of glittering spectacle for which he was famous.

There’s a timeless quality to the score that makes each of the songs as deeply affecting as they were when first heard. On her famous Broadway album, Barbra Streisand talked of singing songs that were meant to be sung. That may seem like an obvious thing to say, but knowing she was referring to those great Hammerstein lyrics, you’re aware of what she meant. The Show Boat score needs to be heard, and it’s here where the ABT cast do the musical justice.

Throughout, there are fine renditions of the classics. Make Believe, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, and the fun Life Upon the Wicked Stage are all highlights. But what strikes you with this production, more than anything else, is the quality of the voices. The singing is impressive in all areas. Lacy Sauter as Julie performs an emotionally charged Bill, while Jamie Parnell as Gaylord and Brittany Santos as Magnolia get the second act tone to Why Do I Love You just right.

But the heart of the score, the song that needs to be solid on all fronts, is Ol’ Man River. Without it, the show falls upon itself; it has to be right. Described in the program as a Basso Cantante, a singer possessing a bass voice with a developed upper range, Earl Hazell as Joe delivers the score’s best known song.  Lyrically, Ol’ Man River equates the flow of the mighty Mississippi to the never-ending hardships of daily life for the African American worker. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of the black dockworker while giving insight to the toil and trouble of a hardworking, everyday, backbreaking existence. Yet while it furthers character, it also stops the show. When Hazell takes center stage for the final line of the song, he points, reaches out, clutches his fist, then yanks it sharply back, bringing the song to a passionate and affecting close. Going forward, who needs to hear Ol’ Man River sung any other way?

Director and choreographer Jim Christian’s Arizona Broadway Theatre production runs just over two hours, plus intermission, and incorporates every theme that was ever intended. There are cuts to what you may have seen before – the ensemble is understandably smaller, making the crowds appear leaner than usual, plus the second half feels extremely fragmented; a result of a show that was once more than four hours, cut to two – but the Show Boat you’ll see on the wide ABT stage remains hugely entertaining; a production bursting with energy and color, performed by a cast full of rich, harmonious voices all working together in a way that makes those wonderful Jerome Kern melodies and Oscar Hammerstein lyrics take flight.

Pictures Courtesy of Scott Samplin

Show Boat continues at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peroria until February 10

Posted in Theatre

Paddington 2 – Film Review

Full disclosure. As a nine year-old school librarian (with power that was intoxicating), each time a new edition of Paddington arrived for borrowing, it would immediately disappear before processed for the shelves. There was no way that particular series of hardcover books were going public for other kids to manhandle until they were read from cover to cover by yours truly, such was the allure of Britain’s most famous cuddly bear; not the one obsessed with honey, the other one; the one that went nowhere without an emergency marmalade sandwich hidden under his shapeless, floppy hat.

Originally from darkest Peru, the bear who sailed to England, then was later found alone at London’s Paddington Station and adopted by the Brown family – hence the name, Paddington Brown – is such a staple of the Great British modern culture that the idea of committing cherished characters to film with live actors was not initially welcomed. Yet, the biggest surprise of UK cinemas in 2014 (2015 in American theatres) was just how respectful and practically perfect in almost every way the widescreen adventure of the huggable bear turned out to be. And now there’s a sequel, Paddington 2, and here’s the good news: it’s even better than the first.

As with the 2014 release, Paddington 2 gives a brief, introductory scene deep in the jungles of darkest Peru when Paddington was a cub and lived with his Uncle Pastuzo (voiced by Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). Both aunt and uncle had dreams of visiting London, the land of marmalade. “Any city that can come up with something like this,” Uncle Pastuzo would say with a marmalade sandwich in hand, “Is okay by me.”

Several bear years and one hit movie later, Paddington has now settled comfortably with his middle class family in 32 Windsor Gardens, not far from Notting Hill in London. For the record, even though the location is correct, there is no number 32. This time, the plot revolves around Paddington’s desire to buy the expensive, vintage pop-up book of London landmarks, the one he found in Mr. Gruber’s antique shop. Paddington wants to send it overseas to his Aunt Lucy, who is now in a home for elderly bears in Peru, but he doesn’t have the money, so the little bear embarks on several odd jobs to raise the pennies.

That’s the initial premise, but things get complicated when the preening, prissy and somewhat villainous actor, Phoenix Buchanan (a genuinely laugh-out-loud Hugh Grant) comes into the picture. Knowing that each page of that vintage pop-up leads to a clue regarding the whereabouts of some hidden treasure, Buchanan dons a theatrical disguise (he’s Magwitch from Great Expectations) steals the book in an overnight smash ‘n grab from Mr. Gruber’s shop, and frames Paddington for the crime. Yes, Paddington goes to prison.

As with the 2014 release, the success of the big screen Paddington rests firmly on lessons learned from the Harry Potter films. Author J.K.Rowling had insisted without compromise that everything on the wizardry screen remain English just as written, without the taint of Hollywood intruding on the references, characters, or storytelling. Paddington is the same. The appeal of the piece works because of how true it remains to its setting and author Michael Bond’s eccentric characters. Audiences outside of the British Isles may not get all the jokes or the quick, pantomimesque asides – they may not even register as jokes – but a lack of knowing everything Brit spoils nothing. The clumsy, slapstick nature of Paddington’s quest to be a window cleaner has the essence of classic silent comedy, while the funny, climactic chase involving not one but two steam engines racing across the English countryside is reminiscent of a live action Wallace & Gromit. Plus, when behind bars, Paddington’s washing machine accident causes all the prisoner’s black and white stripes to turn pink, the scene is not only visually funny, American audiences – Maricopa County ones in particular – won’t be able to stop Sheriff Joe’s now dismantled Tent City from springing to mind.

There’s also good humor to be found in several blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em newspaper headlines, scrapbook collections, plus dialog in general. When Paddington and some fellow prisoners, including Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles McGinty and Noah Taylor as Phibs, make their break, look for a quick flash of a newspaper headline stating ‘Get Out Of Jail Free Card Is Not Legally Binding, Says Judge.’ A scrapbook of Paddington’s theatre trip to London’s West End displays a ticket for ‘Bearfoot in the Park.” And best of all is the warning that comes from Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird who tells a roomful of some of Britain’s best actors, including both Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins returning as Mr. and Mrs. Brown, that, “Actors are the most devious people on the planet. They lie for a living.” You can just imagine the moment when director Paul King shouted, “And… cut.” Those on the set must have fell about in laughter.

And don’t be in a hurry to leave once the end credits roll or you’ll miss Hugh Grant performing Rain on the Roof (Go Pit-Pitty-Pat) from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. It’s a wonderfully funny payoff to everything seen previously, and Grant is so unexpectedly good with the whole silliness.

Shot with a color palette of blues, browns and Christmas reds, in Paddington’s London, the city is seen as an enchanting land for fairy tales. In a moment of fantasy when the little bear imagines himself walking through the pages of the classic pop-up book with his Aunt Lucy, the imagination behind the animation with each London landmark, from Tower Bridge to Piccadilly Circus, is wonderfully explored and executed. No commercial for an overseas English vacation has ever made the international city look so magically appealing. The industry for British tourism must be thrilled. From beginning to end, Paddington 2 is a total delight.

MPAA Rating: PG   Length: 105 Minutes   Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Commuter – Film Review

For insurance agent Michael McCauley (Liam Neeson), every work day starts the same. At exactly 6:00 am, the bedside alarm rudely interrupts the silence and turns on the all news, all-the-time, radio station. McCauley drags himself out of bed, gets ready for work, makes sure his son is ready for school, then, come rain, sun, or snow, he gets in the car with his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and makes his way to the town’s local station.

From there, he boards the same train at the same time, sees the same faces, and makes his way into New York City. And it’s all put together in a flow of fade outs and some stylistically quick-shot edits, indicating the tedium of a never-ending daily routine for a suburbanite insurance agent commuting to NYC. “Everyday’s a grind,” says fellow passenger, Walt (Jonathan Ray Banks).

But if there’s one thing we learn about McCauley from director Jaume Collet-Serra’s action thriller The Commuter is that he wasn’t always an office worker. He used to be a cop, and by all accounts, a good one. But when savings and 401Ks went haywire in 2008, the man was forced to change direction. Instead, he sold insurance. And to date, he intends to keep selling right up until he’s sixty-five. With two mortgages behind him, no savings, and a son about to go to college, there’s no choice. He has to keep going. And then, with five more years left until full retirement, the worst that can happen happens. Due to cutbacks, McCauley is let go and escorted out of the building.

All of this occurs quickly, and if there’s one thing the film has successfully put into place is how easy it is to identify with McCauley. We may not all be insurance agents, and our mortgaged-to-the-hilt home may not be in upstate New York, but the concern of losing a career remains the ever-present dark cloud that hovers over the heads of many, particularly when there’s no savings on which to fall. Which is why it’s easy to understand how an honest man like McCauley would accept the bizarre challenge he’s given during the commute home that night.

As with Jan De Bont’s Speed, the forward motion of the train in Collet-Serra’s The Commuter automatically creates a sense of anticipation. When it first leaves the station, nothing particularly exciting has happened in the carriages, but things feel uncomfortable. For one thing, McCauley can’t find his phone, already creating a sense of isolation. Plus, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) seated opposite, suddenly invades McCauley’s privacy and presents an offer he can’t refuse. For reasons unknown, if McCauley can find a certain passenger on the train before the last stop and drops a GPS tracker in the passenger’s bag, he’ll be rewarded with $100,000. “Someone on this train doesn’t belong,” the woman tells him, then disembarks at the next stop. From there, the man finds himself embroiled in a deadly race against time, one that puts his and his family’s lives at risk. “In case you haven’t figured it out yet,” states a young kid, who is not necessarily involved but has clearly been told what to say to the commuter, “They’re watching you.

So far, so good. In fact, the speed with which things are set up, you can’t help but be pulled in. The way in which Farmiga slyly piques McCauley, and our, curiosity about the task has an irresistible, seductive feel. And with a payoff a $100,000 at a time when the man needs it the most, how can he refuse? But as McCauley’s instincts as an ex-cop will soon tell him, there was never really a choice.

The Commuter is the kind of mystery thriller where, as things progress, common sense and any understanding of reality are eventually abandoned in favor of twisted and ultimately ludicrous logic. In order for events to unfold in the way the bad guys want things to happen, so much has to occur at precisely the right moment (and on an unpredictable speeding train) that in the real world these things would never have worked. And further, once you discover what is really going on, you start wondering why these unseen villains didn’t do the job themselves. Plus, it doesn’t help that McCauley has to unravel a complicated web that the screenwriters have weaved once the train stops and a stand-off ensues. That sense of speed and forward-motion grinds to a halt, and as a consequence, the film loses its momentum. But director Collet-Serra is so good at grabbing your attention during the first act that there comes a point where you willingly overlook every gaping plot hole or ludicrous outcome in favor of not spoiling the ride and wanting to get to journey’s end just to find out what happens.

Ultimately, The Commuter is hokey, sure, but the sight of Liam Neeson using a few special skills and knocking some bad guys about in a speeding carriage can’t help but be fun, and as long as you know this going in, so is the film.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 105 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Man of La Mancha (2018) – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

It would be difficult to deny having heard the loud proclaims of excellence, as expressed by the Tucson press upon the December opening of Arizona Theatre Company’s new re-imaged production of the Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha. Such was the extent of the praise, you might be forgiven for thinking that marketing hype and hyperbole had suddenly superseded the good sense of a writer’s analytical review.

What concluded 2017 for Tucson audiences began the new year for Phoenix. 2018 finally gave valley audiences the opportunity to see what our city to the south was proclaiming so loudly, and to judge for ourselves whether the ATC production, now performing at Herberger Theater Center, deserved the kind of extolling, trumpeting kudos it had received. The final answer will, of course, depend on personal taste and what you’re looking for when you go to the theatre. Traditionalists may balk, purists may even reject, but the reality is, director David Bennett’s new approach to the 1964 musical is so rich with invention and so full of fresh ideas on how to present a classic and make it appear new that what you heard emanating loud and clear along the I-10 corridor may well be justified.

The themes of committing to impossible dreams, fighting unbeatable foes, and living a life of passionate idealism, where madness lies in seeing life as it is and not as it should be, remain intact with director Bennett’s vision; the original text and the lyrics to the score are untouched. But with this new ATC production, it’s not so much the message of the piece with which you leave, but the overall design, the approach, and how that message is delivered. You leave with a new sense of what theatre can deliver, its potential for boundless invention, and perhaps even the need to reevaluate what you’re looking for when you go to musical theatre.

The late sixteenth century is updated to the twentieth. It’s the reign of Franco. Spain is full of unrest. Protests abound, and there’s fighting in the street. What was originally a dungeon where the Inquisition kept prisoners herded together, waiting for trial, is now the basement of a side-street bar where, during these times of political unrest, the place becomes a convenient waiting area, one where enemies of the state are kept under lock and key until they’re called to face the judge. There is only one way in, and there is no escape. Considering what we occasionally view through the cloudy, street-level windows above, the screams heard, the brutality glimpsed, being locked in this basement might be the safest place of all. Until, of course, the Inquisition returns and calls your name.

As with the original, the story remains the same. Writer/actor and tax collector Miquel de Cervantes (Philip Hernandez) and his manservant (Carlos Lopez) are arrested for foreclosing on a Catholic Church. Thrown down into the bar with other prisoners, all of whom are awaiting their own sentences, Cervantes finds he has to defend himself in a mock trial. If found guilty, which is a foregone conclusion, the other prisoners will take all of his possessions and burn his manuscript. In his defense, the writer presents a play, one that will be performed by the prisoners under his direction. What follows is the story of a fictional knight-errant, Don Quixote, who rides in search of adventure with his faithful servant, Sancho, both from the Spanish region of La Mancha, south of Madrid.

In this production, it’s not only the setting that’s updated, it’s the presentation of the score. Director Bennett introduces elements of a European culture that leaves you with no doubt of the story’s Spanish origin. Flamenco guitarists and dancers dominate the arena, while hand-clapping, finger-snapping and palms banging on table tops supply the percussive back beats. Plus, the musical instruments are played on-stage by the actors; there’s no orchestra pit. For some, this device may be the divider between what audiences enjoy and what traditionalists want.

The 2004 London revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd introduced a smaller cast walking on stage while playing the instruments themselves, a style of musical theatre repeated in a 2006 revival of Company. Musician unions weren’t particularly happy, and while Company won a Tony for Best Revival, not all audiences warmed to the style, fearing a trend. The 2011 musical, Once, also had actors playing their instruments on stage, but here there was a difference. Unlike Sweeney Todd and Company, where the style was often viewed as a gimmick, and one that certainly helped cut production costs, Once required its cast to play. After all, the characters were musicians, and watching them perform on guitars and pianos was something that developed naturally out of the material.

Bennett’s Man of La Mancha is less Todd and Company and tilts more in the favor of Once. It feels only right that the prisoners in the Spanish basement bar might also play instruments when performing the play-within-a-play, and even though you may miss the fullness of a live orchestra when hearing those great songs, there’s a natural quality to the sight and sound that works surprisingly well. Particularly effective are the violins and trumpet used in I’m Only Thinking of Him, and the trumpet, a large bass, an accordion, and a snare drum for Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

The flamenco dancing is also inventively used for more than simply colorful flavoring. During the rape of Aldonza (Michelle Dawson), the woman protects herself from the brutal violence by withdrawing within. As if Aldonza’s inner spirit had suddenly emerged, dancer Amelia Moore enters with a fiery flamenco passion and does what she can to fend off the attackers through dance, until her attackers overwhelm her, her energy caves, and she can dance no longer. It’s a remarkable musical sequence.

Performed without intermission as written, Man of La Mancha can also boast a well assembled cast. Dawson, who was a last minute emergency replacement shortly before the show’s Tucson opening, plays the broken Aldonza with just the right amount of confrontational abrasiveness required of the bitter character. Her singing tends to sound somewhat brittle on the higher range, but there’s warmth and caring in her characterization that successfully emerges through all the flaming wildness. Dawson’s tone to Aldonza is just right.

But the show belongs to Philip Hernandez as Don Quixote/Miguel de Cervantes. With a convincing Spanish accent, a commanding presence, the ability to move with ease from the writer to the older, fictional knight, plus the possessor of a powerful singing voice, Hernandez is the charismatic center that holds this Man of La Mancha together. He is quite magnificent.

Pictures courtesy of Tim Fuller

Man of La Mancha continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until January 28

Posted in Theatre