With his shock of curly hair, scarf and blazer, Randolph Curtis Rand looks more like a star of Rent (or possibly Doctor Who) than the title character of Man of La Mancha. But then again, isn't that the whole point of Man of La Mancha, or Don Quixote—the man pretending to be a knight? Burning Coal's minimalist production of this classic, which premiered on Broadway in 1965, in some ways captures the spirit of Miguel Cervantes' work and the themes of its musical adaptation, though there are times when the experiment shows a few tears.
Granted, it makes sense to present Man of La Mancha as director Tea Alagic does here—on a completely bare stage, with all actors in modern dress and only a few stray chairs for props (Man of Grover's Corners, if you've seen Our Town?).
But it works in the context of the show, and actually makes more sense than some more elaborate productions. Man of La Mancha is set in a Spanish jail, where the author Miguel Cervantes has been thrown into the clink along with his manservant, and while he awaits trial by the Spanish Inquisition, he faces a threat from his fellow prisoners. So, to keep the inmates at bay, Cervantes and his servant act out stories as Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Although it's logical that they wouldn't have props or costumes, the show gets problematic in places: The barber's song loses some of its edge when there's not an actual shaving basin for Cervantes/ Quixote to claim as a helmet, and a sequence with gypsies near the end comes across as Rand reading the stage directions, rather than weaving a convincing story.
The performances help overcome this, with strong work all around. This is a more intellectual take on Man of La Mancha, and the key to Rand's performance is that he always reminds you of the intellect telling the story as he slips into character. He doesn't hit those high notes on "The Impossible Dream" the way Ira David Wood III did at N.C. Theatre a few years ago, but he reminds you of why Cervantes created this character and the ideals he aspires toward. He's matched well by David Henderson as Sancho, who brings a combination of wry skepticism and physical comedy to his role, and by Yolanda Rabun, who brings a fierce anguish to Aldonza/ Dulcinea.
This is hardly a version of Man of La Mancha that will lead to soaring sing-alongs, but it does bring home some of the more classic themes of Cervantes, such as the need to dream and to have higher aspirations against the grimmest realities of the world. And that's a tale worth telling, even if the knight errant doesn't get to wear a basin on his head.