A review of the musical, which conflates a writer’s imprisonment during the Spanish Inquisition with a loose retelling of “Don Quixote.” Rufus Bonds Jr. stars as Quixote, and local favorite Don Darryl Rivera is Sancho.

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Before a word is said or spoken, 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of “Man of La Mancha” suggests you’re in for a fresh, more-contemporary-than-usual rendition of this Broadway warhorse.

Instead of a curtain, there’s a massive chain-link fence topped with rolls of barbed wire. It opens onto a grim modern prison yard backed by towering slabs of maximum-security concrete and metal stairways leading to what can only be a very grim penal institution.

The brawling guys hanging out in the yard have the tough, grubby look of marauding bikers. The women prisoners mingling with them are bedraggled and dazed.


‘Man of La Mancha’

Through Oct. 30, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $29-$136 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).

Props to designers Matthew Smucker (set) and Harmony Arnold (costumes), and director Allison Narver for daring something different with a well-worn 1964 musical that, despite its perennial popularity, is often musty and mildewed in performance.

Unfortunately, the updating is more visual than interpretive. Convoluted in its story-within-a-story format, and simplistic in its inspirational cry to dream big, Dale Wasserman’s libretto conflates a noble writer’s imprisonment during the Spanish Inquisition with a loose retelling of Book One of the canonical 17th-century Miguel Cervantes novel, “Don Quixote.”

Playwright and tax collector Cervantes (Rufus Bonds Jr.) and his pal Sancho (Don Darryl Rivera) await their hearing on a charge of blasphemy. The mild-mannered duo are, for sport, attacked by a gang of incarcerated “muleteers.” And the yard’s unofficial “governor” (Allen Fitzpatrick) threatens to toss Cervantes’ new manuscript into the fire.

To get out of the jam, and motivate the rabble to aim for something higher than cynicism and criminality, Cervantes enlists them to act out with him the story of Don Quixote — a delusional aristocrat on a quest to bring chivalry, decency and moral courage into a corrupted world.

That goal is indeed timely during an election season that has descended into a cesspool of scandals and recriminations. However, Quixote’s misadventures are often comical in their naiveté, but broad-stroked in equating madness with genius, transformation with wish fulfillment, and art with resistance to oppression.

Those equations are often best expressed through the score by composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion, conveyed here by strong singers: Nova Payton as the blowsy servant Aldonza (turned into a lady, Dulcinea) has a vital stage presence matched by an opera-trained voice. (A high point: her moving interpretation of “What Does He Want of Me?”)

In key roles, 5th Avenue regulars Fitzpatrick, Brandon O’Neill and Eric Ankrim power through their supporting assignments with customary flair.

And welcome back, Don Darryl Rivera! This cunning comedian and robust singer is back in Seattle after a long Broadway stint in “Aladdin,” and even more of a master of shtick (in the best sense of the word) now. Just watch him cavort through the buddy tune, “I Really Like Him,” rustling up laughs.

But much of “Man of La Mancha” falls squarely on the shoulders of the actor playing Cervantes/Quixote. Bonds stepped in after the previously announced and well-known Norm Lewis dropped out only a month ago. Poised, sturdy and articulate, he’s impressive out of the gate with the rousing “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)” and the euphonious ode to chaste love, “Dulcinea.”

But on opening night, Bonds had less success with the score’s barn-burning anthem, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” — you know, “To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe….” Though heartfelt, it may have been in too high a key, straining the baritone’s upper range, and peaking on a rare sour note.

No doubt that ode is still inspiring for and beloved by many, and it helped turn “Man of La Mancha” into a Broadway super-hit. But for me, the florid sentimentality of the song is mawkish. More problematic is Wasserman’s script, the second half of which is riddled with thematic repetitions and knotty plotting. And you get a very light taste of the Cervantes novel, which doesn’t settle for easy bromides.

A final note: The show marks the debut of 5th Avenue Theatre’s new sound system. It’s a major improvement, and though cranked up too high at times, it balances orchestra and singers adeptly, and renders the dialogue crisply, too. Bravo!