A Luminous "La Mancha"

by Geary Danihy

Having been privileged to see the original production of “Man of La Mancha” starring Richard Kiley, it’s difficult to shake those fond memories when I see a revival of this iconic musical. I’m happy to report, however, that what I recently saw out at Ivoryton made me forget the Washington Square production, for the storied Playhouse has boarded a near perfect staging of Dale Wasserman’s musical, one that should please just about everyone and perhaps bring a tear or two to the eye.

Under the perceptive, sensitive direction of David Edwards, with efficient, effective choreography by Todd Underwood, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the story of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance comes gloriously to life with at least two star-turn performances.

For those who have been living in a cave for the last five decades, the show posits the Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes, being thrown into jail to be held until the Inquisition can ask him some pointed questions. His fellow inmates, thieves and cutthroats, decide to put him on trial. To defend himself, Cervantes decides to tell the (abbreviated) story of Don Quixote de la Mancha, enlisting the inmates to play characters in the saga. Initially disdainful of Cervantes’ philosophy and of his character’s misguided nobility, by play’s end, as Cervantes is called to face the Inquisition, the inmates rise and salute the man and his “dream.”

Although the lead role in the musical was originated by Kiley, many an opera veteran has been called upon to portray the somewhat addled Don, often with less than satisfying results, mainly because of a deficiency in acting skills: big voice but awkward, stiff performance. “La Mancha” ain’t “Rigoletto.” Fortunately, Ivoryton tapped David Pittsinger to play the role, the same bass-baritone who played Emile de Becque in last year’s outstanding production of “South Pacific” at Ivoryton. Yes, Pittsinger has a big voice, but he can also act, very subtly at times. Thus, his performance as Quixote/Cervantes is both nuanced and moving, and he absolutely nails (spoiler alert!) the death scene. A formidable figure, Pittsinger ably morphs into a tottering, slightly addled old man who tilts at windmills, and he brings the house to its feet with Quixote’s two signature numbers: “Man of La Mancha” and, of course, “The Impossible Dream.”

However, Quixote is nothing without his Dulcinea, and here Ivoryton has struck absolute gold in casting Talia Thiesfield as the kitchen slut who becomes Quixote’s female ideal. Thiesfield gives the audience an earthy, fiery Aldonza who fights against Quixote’s idealization of her as Dulcinea. Captivating throughout the show, she rises to mesmerizing heights with her performance of “Aldonza” late in the second act – it ably stands against Pittsinger’s “Impossible Dream” as a candidate for the ultimate show-stopping moment.

Quixote also needs his Sancho Panza, and although Brian Michael Hoffman lays it on just a bit too thick in the opening moments of the production, he quickly eases into his character and delivers a delightful “A Little Gossip” to try and cheer up his companion.

The production is also graced with a strong supporting cast, with Edwards doing double duty as director and playing the haughty Dr. Sanson Carrasco, and a notable Amy Buckley as Antonia, a young woman who is “only thinking” of her uncle as she connives to have him declared insane.

Subtle lighting by Marcus Abbott and a sturdy, multi-purpose set by Daniel Nischen that utilizes every inch of Ivoryton’s stage add to the enjoyment of a production that absolutely glows from start to finish. Compliments galore to everyone involved, including the seven-person orchestra sequestered beneath the stage, in this wonderful production that packed the house the day I saw it.

“Man of La Mancha” plays through October 2. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

 

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