Seeing (and Hearing) Double

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Last week, Southern California theaters were filled with musical doppelgangers. The first example of this was two very different tuneful interpretations of Cervantes' Don Quixote. One version, playing in San Diego, and titled Don Quixotte, was told in the style of 19th century French Grand Opera; the other, playing in Westwood, and titled Man of La Mancha, was told in the style of mid-20th Century American Musical Theater.

Neither version achieves the poetry or sweep of Cervantes' novel, but both these local productions offered charismatic leads in role of the knight-errant. In San Diego it was Ferruccio Furlanetto, a veteran opera star whose acting can be even deeper than his baritone. In Westwood it was Brent Spiner (of Star Trek fame) who was convincing in both speech and song as Cervantes in the well-worn 1965 Broadway musical.

The opera Don Quixotte is barely 100 years old but feels much older — and because of these cobwebs, is in danger of disappearing from theaters altogether. That's because the music and drama is rather generic — it's enjoyable enough, but none of its scenes stand out. That cannot be said of Man of the Mancha, which boasts one of the most famous Broadway standards, "The Impossible Dream."

Hearing this number for some people is like a Frenchman hearing "La Marseillaise;" for me though, it has bad associations: 1) a youthful memory of watching a rerun of Three's Company where Larry sings "The Impossible Dream" at Jack's Bistro and 2) a wretched Broadway revival six years ago that left me scratching my head at why Man of La Mancha was ever popular. This Reprise Theatre Company production (directed by Michael Michetti) is far more heartfelt and uncluttered than that gloomy Broadway staging. Thanks to his smooth directorial hand, one sees how the show melds the tropes of 1960's avant-garde theater with solid commercial instincts -- a smart mix of hip and square.

The music of Man of La Mancha is not exactly first rate -- some of the numbers feel like filler that could be inserted into any musical comedy -- so the 14-piece orchestra is not the treat that it sometimes can be at Reprise productions. The singing however, by Spiner and opera celebrity Julia Mignies, (who plays Dulcinea) finds the emotion in the musical's sometimes sappy tunes.

The other doppelgangers on display in Southern California are down at the Music Center. On the stages of both the Mark Taper Forum and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion are productions that prominently feature doppelgangers. They also share mentions of Valhalla, feature the tearing off of limbs, and possess wicked but playful senses of impending doom.

These two productions are Pippin, a 70's era Broadway musical and Das Rheingold, Wagner opera -- also a product of the 70's, albeit the 1870's. These two shows, as written, have almost nothing in common; but what makes them feel like doubles—besides their heavy use of doppelgangers and a few surface similarities -- is the thoughtful and daring re-interpretation of each work by their directors.

Both stagings are as bold and novel as one sees on New York or London stages, even rivaling the audaciousness of European Opera Houses. Director Jeff Calhoun not only re-imagines Pippin as a magical, modern, reality show, but he choreographs all of the action to include deaf actors using sign language. It's a trip.

With Das Rheingold, German director Achym Freyer doesn't update Richard Wagner's tale of dwarves, giants and Gods to the present, but rather recreates the action in an alternate universe. This universe may look to some like a bad acid trip at Frida Kahlo's house, but somehow Freyer's paper-mache madhouse worked. I've seen many productions of Das Rheingold that try to make the story more topical or current, yet that in doing so, slow down the action. Freyer's staging is kooky, sure, but he never forgets that he's telling a story. I found it riveting.

Both these stagings of Pippin and Das Rheingold are sure to inspire healthy debates—the opening night of the latter even inspired a chorus of boos. These two productions run side by side at the Music Center through March 15, Man of La Mancha runs through Sunday at the Freud Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Craig Schwartz