ST. PETERSBURG — Who would have dreamed that a golden-age musical like Man of La Mancha could break free of its past? Sure, the score by Mitch Leigh (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics) is a classic, loaded with hummable tunes, and the book by Dale Wasserman is wonderfully poetic and high-minded.
It has been more than 40 years since Richard Kiley originated the role of Cervantes' demented knight errant on Broadway, and the show has been subjected to many a ponderous amateur production and bus-and-truck tour (Robert Goulet as Cervantes/Don Quixote passed this way in the '90s), repeated to a point beyond parody. Check out the thousands of renditions of The Impossible Dream on YouTube.
Now comes freeFall Theatre's Man of La Mancha, and it seems as fresh and relevant as a new piece of theater. In what director Eric Davis describes as an "immersive staging," the action takes place amid the audience, which is scattered throughout the playing area on sofas, chairs, a ledge with pillows and at a large round table (a la King Arthur). It is general admission with no conventional theater seats in the black box space, covered in graffiti and draped with chain-link fencing to evoke the prison into which Cervantes was thrown during the Spanish Inquisition.
For an audience member, the effect is thrilling, as if you could step right into the "charade" that Cervantes performs for fellow prisoners. Nor is any attempt made to replicate a traditional setting in Steve Mitchell's scenic design. Quixote's steed is a sawhorse. His spear is an oar. The windmill he jousts against consists of spinning lights on a wall. Actors belt out songs on strategically placed crates.
FreeFall's Man of La Mancha is more theatrical than musical. As Cervantes/Quixote, Steven Patterson is no booming baritone in the Kiley mold, but he brings a disheveled intensity that is utterly persuasive. A fine mist fills the room as he delivers The Impossible Dream from atop the round table. Lulu Picart gives an idiosyncratic performance as Aldonza, the whore whom Quixote imagines to be the virginal Dulcinea, a punkish vision in blue miniskirt, fishnet stockings and orange shoes (the costumes are by Davis). Glenn Gover's Sancho is a puckish presence who has a sweet moment with the straightforward I Really Like Him.
Some of the best singing is in ensemble numbers such as I'm Only Thinking of Him by Antonia (Alison Burns), the Padre (Michael Ursua) and the Housekeeper (Laura Hodes). Music director Alan Satkowski leads a three-piece flamenco band. Joseph P. Oshry's lighting design ranges from garish red for the Inquisition to an atmospheric mix of blue spotlights and red and yellow lightbulbs for the knight's fantasy.
Davis and freeFall are definitely onto something with their boundary-stretching stagings of musicals such as Man of La Mancha, The Wild Party and Rooms: A Rock Romance (the latter two at Studio@620). I can't wait to see Cabaret done in similarly adventurous fashion.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.