“ ‘Man of La Mancha’: A Dream Almost Perfectly Realized”

By Brooks Appelbaum

The Ivoryton Playhouse production of “Man of La Mancha,” running through October 2, brings to the stage one of the purist examples of musical theater -- as opposed to “musical comedy” -- from what some consider a Golden Age of the form, during the 1950’s to 1960’s.  Many of director David Edwards’ choices beautifully emphasize the dark and theatrical elements of Dale Wasserman’s book, with music by Joe Darion and lyrics by Mitch Leigh. However, Edwards softens key elements and heightens the comedy, so that this version of the show is not as hard-hitting and moving as it might be. Still, this “Man of La Mancha” is a fine piece.

Wasserman brilliantly conceives the story as a play-within-a-play. Set during the Spanish Inquisition, “Man of La Mancha” opens in a dungeon. Miguel de Cervantes (David Pittsinger), a failed actor and writer, has offended the church and is thrown in, with his friend and manservant Sancho Panza (Brian Michael Hoffman) amidst the terrified prisoners. The prisoners set upon Cervantes’ belongings, discovering amongst them a manuscript, which they intend to destroy.

In a dazzling parallel to what is playing out in the Inquisition they all await, Cervantes insists that they give him a trial before burning his book; they agree, and he begins to enact the story of Alonso Quijana, an elderly gentleman who has “lain down the burden of sanity” and re-invented himself as Don Quixote, a knight errant battling the world’s evils with courage and a pure heart. The purity of his heart becomes central to the plot when he and Sancho come upon an inn, which Quixote sees as a castle, meet the innkeeper (played with charm by James Van Treuren), and observe the inn’s scullery maid and resident whore, Aldonza (Talia Thiesfield). In Quixote’s eyes, Aldonza is his “Dulcinea”: the long-awaited chaste love to whom he can dedicate all of his chivalrous battles and triumphs.

Meanwhile, back home, Alonso Quijana’s niece Antonia (Amy Buckley), is engaged to a highborn intellectual, Dr. Sanson Carrasco (a chilling David Edwards) and afraid that a delusional uncle will end their troth. Carrasco takes it upon himself to “cure” Quijana, while the resident padre (the sweet-voiced Matthew Krob) presciently hopes that the cure is not worse than the disease.

At the heart of “Man of La Mancha” is the conviction that enacting cruelties is far more insane than believing in beauty, purity, and courage. The musical’s signature song, “The Impossible Dream” sets this tone, and nearly all of the Spanish-inflected and pulsing music sends the strong message that this show is no comedy. Yes, the script includes comic relief, mainly in the sweetly staunch but perpetually puzzled person of Sancho; and Edwards has wisely directed Brian Michael Hoffman to play him sincerely. But the horrifying frame of the Inquisition, the savagery of the muleteers who set upon Aldonza, and the ice-cold self-interest of Carrasco all require a willingness to present a dark and challenging tale.

Here the director’s misstep comes in: wherever Edwards finds the hint of comedy, he pumps it up, and where we should be tempted to look away, he softens the brutality. As a result, we don’t feel the full impact of this impassioned, challenging tale.

The actors, however, demonstrate that they could have taken the play to greater depths. A marvelous David Pittsinger, totally mesmerizing as Cervantes, just needed to be encouraged to subdue, slightly, his inborn charisma, youth, and strength for Quixote; as it is, his acting is terrific and his singing stops the show, literally and figuratively: when he sings, one can think only of the remarkable sound. As Aldonza, Thiesfield, too, has a beautiful voice, but she has been directed to come across as more cocky and strong than blazing with bitter fury—that is, until her number “Aldonza,” where she shows how far she could have gone with the role.

Musical Director Paul Feyer and choreographer Todd Underwood do strong work here, and the set (Daniel Nischan) and lighting (Marcus Abbott) convey each scene believably. Elizabeth Cipollina’s costumes, hair, and wig designs are excellent, and Tate R. Burmeister creates clear and consistent sound.

One leaves the theater marveling at Pittsinger’s towering and committed work, smiling at Hoffman’s keen and intelligent performance, and certain that the world is always better for this musical, when done, as it is here, with conviction and heart.

“Man of La Mancha” runs through October 2. Tickets are available by calling the Ivoryton Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting the website at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org  (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in Ivoryton.

By Brooks Appelbaum
Special to the Shoreline Times

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