Man of La Mancha – Review by Marlene S. Gaylinn

At Westport Country Playhouse (WCP), under its expert, Artistic Director Mark Lamos, this full-scale, very stirring production of “Man of La Mancha” could rival any version presented on Broadway.

“The Adventures of Don Quixote,” the 1615 masterpiece by Miguel de Cervantes, inspired the musical, “Man of La Mancha,” written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. Although the musical takes some liberties with the original novel, its plot is essentially about a naïve dreamer whose quest is to right every wrong that he comes across during his adventures in the Spanish countryside. He is accompanied by his loyal servant, Sancho Panza who may not truly understand him, but never the less defends his master’s unusual concept of reality.

The musical had its premiere at Goodspeed Opera House in 1965, during the midst of draft protests over the Vietnam War and various, non-conformist students’ movements. Its popularity increased because Cervantes’ also criticized the hypocrisy of his society. Throughout the Westport production, there are clever, elements of satire as well as the viewing of goodness in all kinds of people through the teachings of another rebel idealist, Jesus Christ. Even the donkeys that transport the Don and his companion, learn to commune with each other as they share their food. And so, when “Man of La Mancha” played on Broadway, three years later, with Richard Kiley in the starring role, the musical became so popular that it won five Tony Awards!

Besides the abundance of humorous satire, beneath the surface there is some serious symbolism to contemplate here. When our hero begins his adventure and decides to fight a windmill but ends up with bruises and a crooked sword instead, we might simply laugh and leave it at that, or, we might wonder if Don Quixote is really crazy to be fighting his imaginary foe.

If one dwells a bit further, one might ask who this foe is? What does the windmill represent and why is the Don anxiously fighting it? Could it be possible that on another level of reality, this adventurer is battling a powerful “machine” that was constructed by humanity? Is the windmill the “the circle of life,” — a popular concept during Cervantes’ time — and is this imaginary circle being propelled by an uncontrollable force – be it of God, Nature, or, Humankind? Are all of these elements wrapped into one, all-powerful force of universal energy, which just happens to be the popular, scientific explanation of what propels everything in our current time?

And yet, when our “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” encounters his final battle with the mysterious, all-powerful, Giant Knight of Mirrors, we clearly understand that this unbeatable foe is really a reflection of ourselves. Are we distained to eternally fight the forces of evil? Is “The Impossible Dream” only for insane idealists? Is there any hope for the future or, is reality merely a foolish illusion?

Philip Hernandez, who played “Jean Val jean and Inspector Javert in Broadway’s “Les Miserables,” is known for his acting and rich and powerful voice, and he is a marvelous, Cervantes/Don Quixote here too. As Cervantes, he becomes imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition for his treasonous writings, and begins to relate the adventures of Don Quixote to the other inmates in this dark dungeon. His loveable servant, “Sancho Panza,” (Panza means stomach pouch) delightfully played by Tony Manna, gathers the other prisoners to help interpret his master’s adventures. It is thereby understood that this is a play within a play, and that the jailed writer and the tales of his hero, Don Quixote, are one and the same.

Gisela Adisa plays “Aldonza,” a prostitute whom Don Quixote meets at an Inn and dubs “Dulcinea” (“sweet one”). “Aldonza,” appropriately means “ladder” (an object that one climbs up upon). While Adisa plays her role with spit and fire, her short body is not seductive enough to suit the character envisioned in Cervantes’ novel. Never the less, her performance comes off believably during her rape scene, which is a fist-clincher as staged by Marcos Santana (Choreographer) and Michael Rossmy (Fight Director and Intimacy Coach).

Estaban Suero is the colorful “Barber” when he renders our Don “The Golden Helmet of Mambrino.” Michael Mendez, as the “Innkeeper,” exhibits a many-faceted character until he finally agrees to “The Dubbing of The Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” Carlos Encinias portrays the “Padre” and appears throughout various scenes as a sympathetic administrator – perhaps he’s a bit too sympathetic as the Church is strongly being criticized in the sarcastic number, “We’re Only Thinking of Him.” An added touch is Lulu Picart who plays “The Housekeeper” as well as the Spanish guitar. The rest of the supporting cast is top-notch and adds and distinctive, Spanish flavor.

The set-design of the dungeon with its huge, wailing gate and foreboding staircase is by Wilson Chin. Mood-lighting by Alan Edwards, sound design by Domonic Sack and rustic costumes by Fabian Agular contributed nicely. Sections of “The Knight of the Mirrors” were slightly uncoordinated on opening night, but that can be easily remedied.

The orchestra, which is situated in the theatre’s balcony, deserves special recognition. Under the musical direction of Andrew Sotomayor and Wayne Barker, one could feel the emotions and enjoy every word of the beautiful: “Dulcinea,” “Little Bird, Little Bird,” and of course, the stirring, “The Impossible Dream,” which is repeated several times.

“Man of La Mancha” at Westport Country Playhouse, is certainly one of the best shows of the Connecticut Theatre season!

Plays through October 13 Tickets: 203 227 4177
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” October/2018

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