Shakespeare Theatre Company Impresses with 'Man of La Mancha'

Scott Suchman

Over the years, I’ve probably seen five or six productions of “Man of La Mancha,” the ground-breaking musical take on Miguel Cervantes’ classic tale of an aging, would-be knight errant who’s dubbed himself Don Quixote, beginning with a 1970s touring production starring the late Jose Ferrer, which I saw in San Francisco.

After seeing and experiencing the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production, directed dynamically and unerringly by Alan Paul, I can say without reservation that I’ve never seen a better production than this one. Even while hewing fairly closely to the look and feel of other productions, Paul, a splendid group of designers and an outstanding cast have given the audience a production that looks and feels as fresh as it surely was in 1968 when the Lew Wasserman scripted play debuted on Broadway and won a Tony for best musical, with another Tony going to Richard Kiley in the lead.

The idea still seems exciting to me, even though I feared that it might be overly familiar—after all, everybody of a certain age must have hummed, or even tried to sing in a piano bar or the shower “The Impossible Dream.”

I needn’t have worried. The idea of a brightly—and slightly demented—retired solider and member of the landed gentry taking to horse and arms to take on evil and “beat the unbeatable foe” in a Spain beset by the Inquisition seems almost like an urgent mission today, in a world where every other person’s a cynic, and every third person is a victim of malady, oppression, terror and the stupidity of the governing classes.

“Man of La Mancha,” then and now, is a novelty among musicals, it stands almost in a class by itself, while carrying the trappings of American musical traditions, especially with a backpack full of insidiously unforgettable songs. It doesn’t resemble Rodgers and Hammerstein efforts—missing a certain sentimental elan-- it doesn’t have the rock-pop boom of a “Hair”, a “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Godspell,”,amid which it landed. And it doesn’t have the overpowering need to overwhelm the audience often characterized by the later efforts of Andrew Lloyd Weber and his ilk.

It has itself—a brilliant book by Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion—and the idea that you can create a major Broadway musical hit by going back into theater’s bag of basic tricks and let three enthralling characters and their fates carry the show to enduring fame.

I would guess to new generations not in thrall to old stories, “La Mancha” carries something of an extra kick—it lets the audience imagine itself into the play. Nothing fancy here—in “La Mancha’, theater is still a matter of improvising, using what’s at hand, allowing actors and would-be-actors to play their parts through imagination. The show follows both the dictums of Hamlet’s pep talk to the players and Sir Laurence Olivier’s idea that all you really need to put on a play is a fake nose, a few props and talent.

All of those things are present in abundance here—including the long-lasting gifts of Miguel Cervantes himself who not only wrote the original book in the early 1600s, but also serves as a principal character in “Man of La Mancha.” He and a squire have landed in a grimy, dangerous prison awaiting an interview with the Inquisition, always a terrible ordeal. He’s also in the hands of his fellow prisoners, who wait to grab all of his belongings, which include costumes, a trunk and a manuscript. The prisoners put him on trial, for which he will stage a play about the life and times of a certain Don Quixote, starring Cervantes himself. If it’s thumbs down, he loses everything.

So “Man of La Mancha” begins with a time-tested (see “Hamlet”) theatrical ploy, a play within a play. In it, Quixote, accompanied by his squire Sancho, does battle with windmills he sees as three-armed giants, encounters a roadside tavern, which he sees as a castle to protect, is knighted by the innkeeper as “The Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” mistakes a barber’s tool for a golden helmet, battles a gang of vicious muleteers, and most important of all, meets Aldonza, a hardened scullery maid and sometime prostitute, who, in his eyes is the adored-from-afar great lady Dulcinea, whom he loved with all of his fevered spirituality.

Nothing good can come of this, but in the fractured world of Quixote, he is in the thick of the fight for everything good. Aldonza is drawn to him, bewildered by his kind treatment of her. Sancho follows him because “I like Him” and his niece and her fiancé are embarrassed by him to the point of disaster.

Although the musical has always been touching and moving, there is hardly an ounce of cheap, or slightly more costly sentimentality in it—the songs, to be sure are stirring, but the setting—prison and inn, are rough, unprettified. There is the inquisition, the gang of thieving, murderous muleteers. There is rape. There is death.

And yet, you walk out of it feeling better by far for having been there. A major credit goes to Paul, who is only 30 and has won a Helen Hayes Award for the dazzling, hilarious magic act called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His direction—energetic, paced in a way so that the two-hour-without intermission show seems to go swiftly and in fulfilling fashion but somehow makes you want more.

Everybody brings something different to the roles—I’ve seen Ferrer, Raul Julia and Broadway dynamo Brian Stokes Mitchell in the role of Quixote, but for my money, the Australian actor Anthony Warlow, a veteran of numerous musicals, tops them all. He has a great baritone voice and pulls out the musical emotions from the songs, which reminds us that “The Impossible Dream” and “Dulcinea” and the rousing opener “Man of La Mancha”, are true Broadway songs. He’s a terrific actor and an even better singer.

Newcomer Amber Iman plays and sings the part of Aldonza with such gritty force that she almost steals the show—she embodies the part—the low to the ground woman “born in a ditch” and the idealized Dulcinea as two aspects of a very human woman. And Nehal Joshi has a wonderful and heartfelt, deadpan sense of comedic timing as Sancho.

“La Mancha” feels edgy still—even in these times when going viral is a virtue. It may not be brand new, but it’s a lot newer than what passes for much of the latest new thing.

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Sun, 28 May 2017 06:21:47 -0400

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