The Elephant Man & Man of La Mancha (Monte Rio / Petaluma)
Titular roles don’t come much 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 American theatre?
Cinnabar Theater Director Elly Lichenstein has Daniel Cilli, primarily an opera singer who debuted with the San Francisco Opera in 2016, in the dual role of Cervantes and Don Quixote, while Michael Tabib of Monte Rio’s 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. The other prisoners are drafted into roles as the tale is told.
And sung, because it is a musical after all. Under the musical direction of 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 he is met by Daniela Innocenti-Beem who’s doing her best work to date as his Dulcinea. Her delivery of the heart-breaking “Aldonza” is an emotional, gut-wrenching apex of this production. Nice vocal work is also done by Kevin Gino as the Padre. Lighter moments are 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”. Quality performers like Kim Anderman, Anthony Martinez, Stephen Walsh, David Yen, and others 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 Cinnabar 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 on the north side of Highway 116 just this side of the coast, 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 to locals 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, including Lew Brown as Dr. Treves, Yelena Segal as Mrs. Kendall and the always interesting Joseph Potter as Carr Gomm, the hospital administrator. 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.
Curtain Call Theatre presents Cinnabar Theater presents
The Elephant Man Man of La Mancha
through September 23 through September 24
Fri & Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 3pm Fri & Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm
Russian River Hall Cinnabar Theater
20347 Hwy 16 3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Monte Rio, CA 95462 Petaluma, CA 94952
…La Mancha Photos by Eric Chazankin
Elephant Man Photos by Bill Young