Merced College professor, ex-student perform in ‘Man of La Mancha’

From left are Krista Joy Serpa as Aldonza; Curtis Nelson as Don Quixote; and Donn Bradley as Sancho Panza, the lead actors in the Modesto Performing Arts production of “Man of La Mancha.” Serpa’s husband, Adam, a former student of Nelson’s, is also in the cast.
From left are Krista Joy Serpa as Aldonza; Curtis Nelson as Don Quixote; and Donn Bradley as Sancho Panza, the lead actors in the Modesto Performing Arts production of “Man of La Mancha.” Serpa’s husband, Adam, a former student of Nelson’s, is also in the cast. aalfaro@modbee.com

A Merced College professor and his former student are performing together this month in the Modesto Performing Arts production of “Man of La Mancha” at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

“One of the great joys is working with a former Merced College voice student, Adam Serpa,” Merced College professor Curt Nelson said. “In the early 2000s, Adam was in several of my voice classes. I encouraged him to pursue his music and training. He ended up getting his music degree and is now a music teacher at a Modesto-area high school. So, as a music professor, to be onstage with a former student is incredibly rewarding.”

Both Serpa and his wife, Krista, perform onstage with Nelson.

“They are solid rocks in the show,” he said. “They craft wonderful musical and dramatic moments.”

“Man of La Mancha” is a musical adapted from Dale Wasserman’s nonmusical 1959 teleplay “I, Don Quixote,” which was in turn inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century masterpiece “Don Quixote.” It tells the story of the knight, Don Quixote, as a play within a play, performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as he awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition.

“It is one of the greatest and most enduring musicals ever written,” Krista Serpa said. “The cast is absolutely exceptional, with fabulous actors and musicians from all over the Valley and Bay Area coming together to create something really special. It is moving and gorgeous, but also very funny and exciting! There is sword fighting, I get lifted on a table, we all sing our hearts out.”

Nelson plays three characters in the production: Cervantes, Alonso Quijana, and Don Quixote.

“Each of these three have characters that flesh out their part of the story,” Nelson said. “Cervantes is in prison and is telling this story of Alonso and his alter ego to fellow prisoners in hope of keeping them from stealing all his belongings. The elderly Alonso Quijana has a niece, her fiancé, a padre and housekeeper all concerned about his mental instability. Finally, as Don Quixote, he encounters the innkeeper, the rough muleteers, and most importantly, the wench Aldonza, who he is convinced is Dulcinea, the ideal woman, perfect in beauty, purity, nobility and character. Though he elevates her to this pedestal of perfection, Aldonza will have none of it and finds Don Quixote a crazy man.”

Adam Serpa, who plays the padre, is entranced by the music of “Man of La Mancha.”

“In order to evoke a feeling of the exoticism and antiquity of medieval Spain, the time signature of the music is always changing from two beats a measure to three,” he said. “The result is a score with incredibly interesting rhythms that have an off-balance dance feel.”

His favorite part is the final number between Nelson’s Quixote and Krista Serpa’s Aldonza.

“The show, which remains mostly whimsical until this point, becomes very emotional,” he said. “Curtis and Krista create such a powerful moment that I become emotional just watching them onstage. It’s really beautiful.”

It is one of Krista Serpa’s treasured moments as well. “Aldonza is a dream role for musical theater actresses, and a big departure for me, so I have loved the challenge of getting into her head, especially during her final big song,” she said. “It’s incredibly written and so fun to sing. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect counterpart in Curt as Don Quixote, and I absolutely love performing the final scene with him, as well. It’s one of the most dramatic and beautiful finales ever written for theater, in my opinion. The audience will be blown away.”

She also enjoys the “play within a play” presentation of the story.

“The reality setting is a prison which the characters never actually leave,” Krista said. “They literally transform the objects around them into props and sets for the story being told. Audiences may think they are unfamiliar with the show, but will definitely recognize some of the famous music, especially ‘The Impossible Dream.’ It’s a fascinating tale.”

While Nelson has enjoyed the challenge of performing three distinct characters, it is the story itself that resonates most deeply.

“Most people know at least some of the music, but beyond the song and character is a wonderful, heartwarming, uplifting story that inspires and deeply touches the heart,” he said. “At a time when idealism and high character are being discounted all around us, it is good to find a touchstone that lifts the heart and spurs one on towards the ‘better us,’ the one that is composed of elements of nobility, virtue, grace, and steadfastness in the face of opposition. ‘Man of La Mancha’ is one touchstone that can affect an audience that way.”