Fresh off her 2011 Ovation win for lead actress in a musical for her role as Kate in Reprise Theatre Company’s Kiss Me Kate, Lesli Margherita is kicking off 2012 as Aldonza in Musical Theatre West’s (MTW) revamped version of Man of La Mancha.
The recent Ovation win came as a surprise to Margherita, who recalls being exhausted at the time and convinced that she would not win. She and her husband had just gotten off a plane from her encore presentation of her Olivier Award-winning role in Zorro the Musical in Shanghai when she had to rush to the Ovations.
“We had been flying for 18 hours. We got off the plane, I put on a dress, and I remember nothing,” she laughs. “I didn’t think I was going to win. I remember being bummed because [Reprise artistic director] Jason Alexander was presenting the award and I thought, “˜Oh that would have been cool to win and have him present it to me’,” she says. When she did win, she was shocked. “I wish I had planned out something to say. I was rambling, and I remember [band director] David O cutting me off,” she says. “It was a haze for me.”
Now, her award occupies a special but peculiar place in her entertainment center. “On the shelves we have all these Star Wars Mr. Potato Heads that friends give us because my husband and I are such huge Star Wars fans,” she says. “Dispersed among these Mr. Potato Heads are the Laurence Olivier award and of course the Ovation.”
Margherita, who has been seen in lead roles in a slew of musical productions since winning the Olivier award in 2009 for her performance in London’s West End production of Zorro the Musical, says she is thrilled to be back at Musical Theatre West. She last performed with the Long Beach-based theatrical company in Anything Goes (2006). Since then, she says, “I’ve been dying to come back.”
After runs at Reprise (Kiss Me Kate and Damn Yankees) and La Mirada Theatre (Little Shop of Horrors), Margherita says what keeps her excited about Musical Theatre West is its willingness to take risks. “They’re so open to new things and to doing productions differently, which I think is so important especially now that so many theaters are closing. They’re not just playing it safe.” The helpful staff doesn’t hurt, either. “Everybody who works for them, not just the staff but the volunteers too, are so nice. It’s a real family,” she says.
When she signed on to the show, she was surprised to find out about plans to lend a different tone to the classic musical. The payoff, she says, is in the music. “They decided they wanted to change up some of the songs and some of the music to make it a little grittier,” she explains. To Margherita, the alterations clear up a problematic aspect of the musical. She always found it difficult to marry the tone of the show with her perception of Aldonza. What she calls the “beautiful, classical score” never seemed to make sense for the character, whom she has also played for California Musical Theatre’s Music Circus in Sacramento. “Aldonza is a whore,” Margherita says matter-of-factly. “Yet she’s singing these soprano opera songs. It never made any sense to me.”
To better reflect some of the show’s darker elements, some alterations were made to the arrangements by musical director Matthew Smedal. Margherita knows Smedal. Previously, he has served as associate musical director for more than 10 productions at Reprise, and as music director at venues such as Cabrillo Music Theatre, MTW, and International City Theatre. He worked closely with Margherita in both Kiss Me Kate and Damn Yankees. After seeing him in the role of associate musical director, Margherita is excited to see him spread his wings and take a larger role at MTW. “It’s about time!” she gushes. “As a musical director, he’s genius. He just thinks of music differently than other people do.”
Margherita appreciates Smedal’s input. “At Reprise, he was so invaluable to me. He always had advice.” As a friend, Smedal has appeared in Margherita’s popular cabaret show All Hail the Queen, in which he is a member of the band. “He has always come as a favor to me because he thinks it’s fun to play in the band,” she says. She is quick to praise Smedal for the alterations he made to Man of La Mancha’s orchestrations.Â Â She says, “The things he is doing differently to change up this score are really beautiful.”
But fans need not fear a total upheaval of the original show. Margherita assures them that while the revamped score better reflects Aldonza’s darker side, she is still the character audiences love. According to Margherita’s website, Aldonza is one of her favorite roles, and all of her best elements remain intact. “She says it like it is. She’s tough. She takes no crap and I love that,” she says. An apt description””the first time we see Aldonza, she is in a brawl with a group of men. “She basically beats up a bunch of big burly men. It’s really fun,” Margherita says. In addition to her tough side, Aldonza — who’s envisioned by Don Quixote as the lady Dulcinea — also adds to the show’s theme of the “Impossible Dream.” Margherita explains, “She wants to change her life. She is all about redemption.”
Don Quixote, the impossible dreamer who inspires Aldonza to change, is played by Davis Gaines, best known for his 2,000-plus performances as the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. He has performed the role on Broadway, in LA, and in San Francisco. Gaines has appeared in such productions as Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing, Camelot with Richard Burton, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Alexis Smith. Â He has also had a presence on popular television shows including Charmed and Murder, She Wrote. His resume boasts performances for five US presidents.
It’s no wonder Margherita felt nervous when she found out who her co-star was. “When I heard he was doing this, I was so thrilled. And then I went, oh crap! I have to sing next to him!” Margherita reflects, “I have seen him in Phantom, obviously, and I have seen him at benefits over the years. I was always so in awe of his voice.”Â Any worries she had about Gaines were cleared up as soon as she met him. “I was afraid he was going to be one of these stuffy, arty singers. But he’s such a goofy guy,” she says.
Margherita has been blown away by Gaines at rehearsals. After hearing his rendition of “The Impossible Dream,” Margherita says she was stunned. “It’s so beautiful. People are going to be weeping,” she promises. “His acting is heartbreaking.”
As heartbreaking as his acting may be, it is equally funny. “This is a guy who is very funny, but I don’t think people see that a lot,” Margherita says. Playing Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza is Justin “Squigs” Robertson, who appeared with Gaines in MTW’s production of 1776 (2010). Margherita thinks the two make a great comic duo. “You can tell they’re friends. They’re so good together,” she says. Margherita, who knows Robertson personally, calls him hysterical. “He doesn’t have to say anything””he just gives a look and people start laughing,” she says.
Director Nick DeGruccio is a three-time Ovation award winner for direction: The Laramie Project at Laguna Playhouse and the Colony Theater (2002), 1776 at Performance Riverside (2004), and Jekyll & Hyde at Cabrillo Music Theatre (2008). DeGruccio has worked with all of the lead actors previously, which Margherita thinks serves the production well. “It really does make a difference when you’ve known people a few years. Because I know them, they can say things to me that won’t hurt my feelings. They will be really honest in rehearsals,” she says of DeGruccio, Smedal, and Robertson. “Everybody works really well together.”
When Margherita wraps up Man of La Mancha, she won’t have too much time to breathe; she is currently in the planning stages for an all-new version of her cabaret show All Hail the Queen. “We’re basically throwing out the entire old show, which is really sad,” Margherita says. The key to giving the show new life seems to be the idea that bigger is better. “We feel like we have to go bigger and bigger. It’s huge now. Originally there were three dancers, two backup singers, and a puppet. Now we’re looking at a bigger venue, and more band members and dancers. It takes a lot of work,” she says, emphasizing “a lot.” She projects the show will be ready for staging in May.
Also coming up for Margherita is a new original web series called Sparklepuff Lazerium, which she is keeping mum on. “I am sworn to secrecy until it debuts,” she says. What she can reveal is that she will be playing the lead, Sparklepuff, and that the series will be a “science fiction spoof.” A look at the trailer posted on the series’ website suggests the show will be hilarious and somewhat raunchy. The teaser trailer boasts, “In a galaxy threatened by bad criminals, bad aliens, and other bad space stuff, only one can save it.” Cue Lesli Margherita in a tight magenta body suit, matching face paint, and a blue wig getting into various antics. Clearly, the web series will showcase her comic talents.
2012 is shaping up to be another stellar””and perhaps intergalactic””year for Lesli Margherita.
Man of La Mancha, presented by Musical Theatre West. Opens Feb 11. Plays Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm (no 2 pm performance Feb 11), Sun 2 pm (additional 7 pm performance Feb 19). Through Feb 26. Tickets: $20-$85. Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach. 562-856-1999 x4. www.musical.org.
***All Man of La Mancha production photos by Ken Jacques