Man of La Mancha – Review by Geary Danihy

Sometimes, just because you can do something doesn’t mean it should be done. Take the case of “Man of La Mancha,” Westport Country Playhouse’s current production under the direction of Mark Lamos. The musical, with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, garnered five Tony awards when it opened on Broadway in 1965, after a premiere run at the Goodspeed Opera House. It was based on Wasserman’s 1959 teleplay, “I, Don Quixote,” which, in turn, was loosely based on the 17th-century novel, “Don Quixote,” written by Miguel de Cervantes. The original Broadway production (it’s been revived four times) ran for over 2,300 performances, was made into a film in 1972 starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren, and has been produced by theaters around the world. In other words, it’s an American musical icon, and as such, it’s always a bit of a challenge to stage material that is etched into the minds of much of the theater-going public. This Lamos does quite successfully, with some minor lighting quibbles, until we get late into the second act, when technology takes over and the musical suddenly seems to become a trailer for the next “Transformers” movie. Why is this more than a quibble? I’ll attempt to explain later.

Part of the musical’s appeal, in addition to the score, is that, at its heart, it’s both a bromance and a romance. The bromance is the relationship between Alonso Quijano (Philip Hernandez), who, succumbing to the delusional world of the knight errant mythology, renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, and his faithful servant, Sancho Panza (Tony Manna), with whom he sets out on a quest. When asked why Sancho stays with the addled knight, Sancho answers with a song: “I Really Like Him.”
The romance deals with Quixote’s fixation on a serving wench (she who was “born on a dung heap” and offers herself to whoever drops money into her hand) named Aldonza (Gisela Adisa), whom Quixote rechristens “Dulcinea,” for every knight must have a lady in whose name he performs valorous deeds. Thus, it’s a story about people’s evolving relationships, the emotions these relationships engender, and the delusions that often fuel these emotions.

The play-within-a-play format begins with Cervantes and his servant imprisoned for “questioning” by the Spanish Inquisition. His fellow inmates decide to put the author on trial and, in his defense, Cervantes suggest that, using the prisoners as actors, he present a play – the story of a knight errant. What follows is the unfolding of the Quixote legend replete with windmill-tilting and the knight’s commitment to “the quest,” with story-line and character development fostered by such songs as the signature “Impossible Dream” as well as “Dulcinea,” “What Does He Want of Me, “Little Bird” and “I, Don Quixote.”

The cast is quite admirable, led by Hernandez, who gives the Cervantes character the necessary air of nobility while shifting gears as Quixote to show a man captured by the mania of a myth. Hernadez’s deep, resonant voice seems to fill the house, and his rendition of the “Impossible Dream” subtly provides the sense of the futile nature of the quest beneath what is often delivered merely as an anthem. As Quixote’s “love interest,” Adisa gives us an Aldonza whose vocal abilities and take on some of the songs seem a bit too “modern” for her character – by that I mean there are some jazz riffs and “Dream Girls” moments that sneak in, but there’s no denying that she nails the second act’s “Aldonza” and “Dulcinea.”

Manna’s first few moments on stage as Sancho might portend that he will deliver a “wink-wink” take on Quixote’s sidekick as he plays to the audience, but he quickly settle into the character and allows the comedy inherent in the role to speak for itself. In supporting roles, the Padre (Carlos Encinias) offers the audience a lovely, touching “To Each His Dulcinea,” and works well with Carrasco (Clay Singer), Antonia (Paola Hernandez) and the Housekeeper (Lulu Picart) in the paean to hypocrisy, “We’re Only Thinking of Him.”

In fact, things go swimmingly as the audience is drawn into the lives of these characters until late in the second act when Carrasco, Antonia’s intended husband, believes he must, for the sake of the good family name, “cure” the crazy old man, Antonia’s uncle, of his illness. Thus, he presents himself to Quixote as another knight, “The Enchanter,” who claims he is the “Knight of the Mirrors” who will force Quixote to look at himself to see the truly pitiful, delusional figure he has become. Here is where we go into “Transformer” land, for this “knight” appears as disparate parts that reach from the stage almost up to the fly space – it’s all a visual jumble that takes away from the intimacy of the conflict and draws the audience’s attention away from Quixote’s agony as it demands focus on the “really cool,” humongous figure that visually screams “Look what we can do in this theater!” Who’s responsible for this decision? Lamos? Scenic designer Wilson Chin? Costume designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar? Who knows, but it’s a technical “stunt” that is totally unnecessary and dramatically off-putting.

Putting aside this “big” moment late in the second act, the Playhouse’s production of “La Mancha” is an enjoyable re-telling of the Quixote tale that offers the audience some very fine performances and some sensitive, perceptive staging on Lamos’s part that includes some chess-piece blocking using, “knight,” “queen,” “bishop” and “castle.” Hopefully, as the audience members depart they will remember all that was artistically rendered in the production and forget about the hulking, lumbering “Knight of the Mirrors.”

“Man of La Mancha” runs through October 14. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org .

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