There’s nothing like the work of Squabbalogic to convert a reluctant musical theatre goer. I have come to excitedly anticipate their work, especially as they present musicals I’ve rarely heard and then wonder why I haven’t when it’s this good. The reason is simple- there is an element of magic in Squabbalogic’s work. It’s not over-produced, but it’s polished and professional. It doesn’t always go for the star factor but it always produces quality performances and it almost always reinvents with integrity and creativity the space, the music and the interpretation of the work presented. Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s ‘Man of La Mancha’, directed by artistic director Jay James-Moody is no exception to the rule.
‘Man of La Mancha’ is a play within a play. Imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes fights the fellow inmates for the right to retain his manuscript of Don Quixote. As the inmates transform and accompany our enacted plot, they embrace all of the play’s elements, including its music- played by the cast throughout the play. It makes for an interesting dichotomy of those a little stronger in acting and those a little better at music but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The gritty rawness and authenticity of the prison is enhanced by the piecemeal ensemble of instruments and players.
Tony Sheldon is exceptional in this production. His Miguel De Cervantes/Don Quixote is vulnerable and dignified, comic and dramatic. I’m embarrassed to say that this was the first time I’ve seen Sheldon in action but I’m so grateful I finally did. He beautifully engages as our delusional hero and lovable knight and his conversion into his frail alter-ego is done with nuance and skill. Then as Cervantes, his confidence and charisma is magnetic. Sheldon’s ability to manipulate our feelings and present three different, clear and precise roles was powerful and drew in his audience at every step.
Another highlight was Marika Aubrey (Aldonza). Her feisty heroine’s journey is one of the engrossing moments of the production and James-Moody’s ability to interpret the dark elements of the play with force and vulnerability allows ‘Man of La Mancha’ to find a weight that catapults it from a potentially fun fantasy comedy into a relevant and uncomfortable examination of oppression and survival.
Paul Geddes musical direction underscores James-Moody’s interpretation that allows the ensemble to move organically from instrument to actor and highlight the mood of each scene and sometimes juxtapose the brutality with a sweet melody that heightens the violence.
Simon Greer’s set creates an earthy hue of an underground makeshift existence for our characters with each part of the space able to be transformed, to secret away performers and to fill the stage with movement. Benjamin Brockman’s lights were the perfect complement to Greer’s set- in every corner lurks a darkened danger, every shadow a potential villain and every light a transient chance of hope and joy than can quickly turn against you. Brendan Hay’s costumes enhance this further still. A grimy lived-in, worn and tattered design contrasted to our protagonist’s arrival and stature. Then as each character becomes part of the play within the play, their roles are reinvented in costume and status. Another special mention to Ross Chisari for his choreography and to the whole cast for the passion, skill and vigour in which they have embraced James-Moody’s production.
‘Man of La Mancha’ is playing at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until March 21st.