“Singing Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha” began as a suggestion — a very small seed of a suggestion — that was planted many years ago by a friend of mine.”
So recalls baritone Daniel Cilli, who will appear as Quixote in Cinnabar Theater’s production of the beloved 1965 Broadway musical. An acclaimed opera singer, now living in Portland, Oregon, he admits that his friend’s suggestion was as intriguing as it was surprising.
“She works more in musical theater, and I primarily do opera, so ‘Man of La Mancha’ was not so much on my radar,” he says, having arrived a bit early for a rehearsal. “But she said, ‘When you get a little older, you’d make a great Quixote,’ and the idea has stuck with me. At that point, I’d never even seen the show.”
In fact, Cilli admits it wasn’t until after being offered the role of Quixote by Cinnabar Artistic Director Elly Lichenstein — around the time he played Silvio in Cinnabar’s production of “Pagliacci” last June — that he finally sat down to watch the 1972 film version ‘La Mancha.” Based on Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th Century novel “Don Quixote,” the musical is remarkably complex. As written by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion, and Mitch Leigh, the story is a play-within-a-play, as Cervantes, jailed by the Spanish Inquisition, attempts to save his “Quixote” manuscript from being destroyed by his fellow prisoners. In defense of his novel, he recruits other inmates to play supporting characters, as he acts out the story of wealthy landowner Alonso Quijano, an elderly eccentric who believes he is a medieval knight named Don Quixote De La Mancha. Escaping his family, he sets out on a quest to save the land from an evil sorcerer.
The Cinnabar production, directed by Lichenstein, with musical direction by Mary Chun, features a strong cast of local actors and singers, including Daniela Innocenti- Beem, Michael Van Why, Mary Gannon Graham, Stephen Walsh, Anthony Martinez, Madeleine Ashe, David Yen, Zane Walters, and several others.
“As I’ve been working on it, particularly as I’ve been playing this role with this cast of performers here at Cinnabar, I’ve come to appreciate this show more and more every time we run through it,” says Cilli. “I think it’s a very valuable piece, and a very timely piece.”
Asked to describe what it is about “Man of La Mancha” that makes it particularly timely, Cilli says one could examine the story from a number of pop cultural perspectives.
“If you described it as a T.V. episode,” he says, “you might say, ‘An actor-writer-adventurer is imprisoned, and creates a desperate, slightly crazy scenario to save his life’s work.’ You could say it’s about the imprisonment of Cervantes, you could say it’s about the madness of Don Quixote, you could say it’s about walking in the shoes of someone who lived an exciting life in the 1600s. And then you could say it’s about people trying to understand the difference between truth and fiction. How much are we complicit in the creation and spread of fictions? That’s a very timely question for our current state.”
Which is not to say “Man of La Mancha” is some ponderous work of philosophy.
Says Cilli, “This is a very entertaining show, a show with layers upon layers of storytelling and fiction, a show that expresses its true heart and soul when Quixote sings, ‘To dream the impossible dream.’”
That song, “Impossible Dream,” is arguably one of the best-loved songs ever written for the musical stage. But it’s not the only beautiful song in “The Man of La Mancha,” Cilli wants to point out.
“It’s undeniably beautiful and moving, and it’s a pleasure to get to sing it, but there is so much beauty and melody and emotion and timelessness in this show,” he says. “It’s taken me a while to understand exactly what the play, and my character, are all about. But now that we are getting ready to invite audiences in, I have to say my friends was right to suggest it. I’m very, very happy that I get to do this show, with this company, at this time. It’s a true privilege and an honor, and I hope to make the most of it.”
(Email David at email@example.com)