Titular roles don’t come more challenging than those of Miguel de Cervantes, the Man of La Mancha and John Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man, so why not increase the challenge by casting the roles with performers whose fortés are outside of standard theatre?
Cinnabar Theater Director Elly Lichenstein has Daniel Cilli, primarily an opera singer, in the dual role of Cervantes and Don Quixote, while Michael Tabib of Curtain Call Theatre has cast stand-up comedian James Rowan as Merrick. Both gentlemen do honor to their characters.
La Mancha is set in the bowels of a 16th century Spanish prison, where Cervantes awaits his fate at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Stripped of his belongings by the other prisoners, Cervantes pleads for the return of his manuscript of Don Quixote and demands a trial. His defense will be a reenactment of his story of honor and love. He will play the title role with his also-imprisoned manservant (Michael Van Why) as Sancho Panza. Other prisoners are drafted into roles as the tale is told.
And sung, because it is a musical after all. Under musical director Mary Chun, Cilli’s magnificent baritone is the perfect match for the Mitch Leigh & Joe Dario score culminating with a show-stopping version of “The Impossible Dream.” He sets the standard for musical performance in this show, and is met by Daniela Innocenti-Beem as his Dulcinea with the heart-breaking “Aldonza”. Nice vocal work is also done by Kevin Gino as the Padre. A necessary lighter tone is brought to this often-dark production courtesy of Van Why with “I Really Like Him” and Mary Gannon Graham as the Housekeeper in “I’m Only Thinking of Him”. Other quality performers round out the ensemble.
Befitting a show with a budget, there’s a dank and detailed dungeon set by Wayne Hovey and appropriately grimy costumes by Abra Berman. Chun continues her award-winning work at Cinnabar with a six-piece orchestra that fills the auditorium with the Tony-winning score.
Lichenstein wasn’t tilting at windmills when deciding to bring this production to the North Bay. A quest to Petaluma to catch this production will bring ample reward.
On the opposite side of the budget spectrum lies Monte Rio’s Curtain Call Theatre. Housed in the Russian River Hall, they’ve impressed me in the past with what they’re able to do with minimal resources. Their current production of The Elephant Man utilizes projections more so than set pieces to evoke a sense of time and place and, because of the playwright’s desire to not recreate the physical deformities that afflicted the title character, allows the audience to get past that potential distraction by displaying photographs taken of John Merrick and his condition.
That leaves it to James Rowan to give the audience the inner character. Best known for hosting and performing comedy at local taprooms, he’s begun dipping his toes in local theatre. There’s ample evidence that comedians make good actors (and, conversely, that actors do a lousy job playing comedians) and Rowan’s name can be added to that list. He gives a very human performance as Merrick that recalls John Hurt’s brilliant work in the same-titled film.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s the fact-based tale of John Merrick, the doctor who rescued him from his “freak show” existence, his life as a resident of London Hospital and his transformation into an A-list member of British society.
The cast consists of Curtain Call regulars and Tabib guides them in doing good work, but it all comes down to Rowan’s believability as the title character. His commitment to Merrick – his physicality and his manner of speech – is admirable. More importantly, he brings Merrick’s humanity to the forefront, particularly in several very touching scenes with Segal/Kendall.
The Elephant Man is an excellent example of how, while technical elements often play an important part in a production’s success, a strong central performance is what really makes a show.