Reprise’s production of Man Of La Mancha, now at UCLA’s Freud Theater, illustrates why this beloved musical is revived again and again. In the capable hands of a director such as Michael Michetti and stars such as Brent Spiner and Julia Migenes, the show can still be chilling, stirring, and in its final moments, even awe-inspiring.
The production begins in uncomfortable silence — it’s a shame that one of Broadway’s best overtures has been stripped away — yet the lack of one sets an appropriately awkward start. Sound designer Philip G Allen allows the bellowing voices of the cast to echo, giving a haunting presence to the show’s setting. As the imprisoned Miguel Cervantes (Spiner) spins his tale of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance — Don Quixote de la Mancha — the fellow prisoners take on supporting roles in his tale, including that of Quixote’s devoted squire, Sancho Panza (Lee Wilkof), and Aldonza, the alley cat waitress whom Quixote claims to be an elegant lady (Migenes).
Spiner is a commanding presence from the moment he takes the stage. The guttural-voiced Migenes is shattering as the gruff but ultimately vulnerable whore who buys into Don Quixote’s delusions. While she appears to be always in control, when the men eventually rape her, her façade crumbles into abject horror. Wilkof has an endearing wit as Panza. As the judge and executioner of the prisoners, George Ball manages to be frighteningly calm and is also appropriately lighthearted when playing the innkeeper in Cervantes’ charade. As the haughty Duke, Christopher Guilmet brings pomposity to his role while always projecting in his eyes that he has warmed to Cervantes’ story, even as he remains stalwart in his opponent’s presence.
Michetti deftly balances the disturbing energy of the prison with some of the humor embedded in Dale Wasserman’s brilliant script. Inventively, he utilizes homemade instruments, like utensils and handclaps, and facilitates a light show in “I, Don Quixote,” where shadows project both the giant hero in Quixote’s head and the slight fool that everyone else sees. Choreographer Kitty McNamee turns the rape and combat into perfectly orchestrated acrobatics, and proves to be masterful at incorporating Spanish dance moves into the action. The Reprise orchestra, led by Brad Ellis, has never sounded so vital; the xylophone and Spanish guitar take center stage with striking results.
Also essential to the mood is Tom Buderwitz’s set, a labyrinth of metal spear columns and creaky bridges which appears to be ready to engulf the ensemble at any moment like a sleeping monster.