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Sunday, September 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Modern merges fantasy, reality with ‘Man of La Mancha’

Daniel McKeever as Don Quixote in The Modern’s production of “Man of La Mancha.” (Photo by Daniel D. Baumer)
Daniel McKeever as Don Quixote in The Modern’s production of “Man of La Mancha.” (Photo by Daniel D. Baumer)

“Don Quixote” is a story that toys with perception and identity, the tale of a man who is so disenchanted with the world that he’d prefer to live in delusion. The revered musical “Man of La Mancha” merges the plot of that influential 17th-century novel with a chapter in the life of its author, Miguel de Cervantes, and it hits the Modern Spokane’s stage this weekend under the direction of Troy Nickerson and Heather McHenry-Kroetch.

The show is one of frequently conflicting interpretations. It doesn’t always adhere to the details of Cervantes’ most famous work, nor does it purport to accurately depict Cervantes himself, and it often merges fantasy with reality in conspicuous ways.

“It can be a hard show to follow on its own, because it’s all about your interpretation of what’s happening,” Nickerson said. “Is (Cervantes) a madman? Is he not a madman? We try to make the distinction between the reality and (the fantasy), so those are always obstacles.”

Written by Dale Wasserman, “Man of La Mancha” opens as Cervantes (Daniel McKeever) is thrown into a jail cell by the Spanish Inquisition. One of his only possessions is a manuscript of “Don Quixote,” and he convinces his fellow prisoners to keep from burning it if they’ll act out the story with him.

Cervantes takes on the role of Quixote, and his manservant plays right-hand man Sancho Panza (Rio Alberto), while the other prisoners take on the personae of the prostitute Aldonza (Marlee Andrews), the sympathetic innkeeper (Nick Bailey) and the local priest (Brandon Michael). The identities of the characters and their actors often merge, creating a deliberately elliptical dramatic structure.

“Man of La Mancha” features songs composed by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, and the score is famously imposing. (The Quixote role, played in various productions by the likes of Robert Goulet and Placido Domingo, was reportedly too demanding for Rex Harrison, who was originally cast on Broadway.) But despite the show’s musical difficulties, Nickerson says his cast is working wonders with the material.

“This is maybe one of the best vocal ensembles I’ve ever worked with,” Nickerson said. “Vocally, they’re pretty fabulous. And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve worked with a lot of (ensembles). Their voices are just stunning.”

The Modern’s production continues the conceptual playfulness of Wasserman’s script, transplanting a familiar story of the 1600s to the 2010s.

“I hadn’t seen any other versions (of ‘Man of La Mancha’) mixing it up like this,” Nickerson said, likening the approach to adaptations that have brought Shakespeare into the modern day. “It was one of those ideas where the cart came before the horse. The concept came about before we sat down and figured it out. … The sets and costumes make it look like a (contemporary) penitentiary, complete with the orange prison uniforms.”

Nickerson says he and McHenry-Kroetch are also using the entire Modern space in ways that recent productions haven’t, removing seats from the theater’s uppermost rows to create a set that encircles the audience.

“The prisoners themselves are up behind the audience, so each side will be able to see the cells from across the room,” Nickerson said. “They never leave the stage for the entire show. You’re completely immersed in the world of the play as an audience member. You’re there.”

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