Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review of "Man of La Mancha"

When one hears of a new mounting of Man of La Mancha there is usually an audible groan.  “Not that old warhorse of a musical, again.”  However, as with the current production at the Ivoryton Playhouse, when the show is staged with an absorbing and exhilarating professionalism it is not to be missed. 

The musical is a show within a show.  It centers on Miguel de Cervantes (David Pittsinger), along with his manservant (Brian Michael Hoffman), who have been thrown into a dungeon during the Spanish Inquisition.  They are put on “trial” by the other prisoners and, as his defense, Cervantes weaves a tale of adventure and righteousness aided by the other prisoners awaiting their fate.

He now becomes Alonso Quijana, a learned man who has read too many books on chivalry and injustice that he has lost his mind.  Renaming himself Don Quixote he and his manservant/squire, Sancho Panza, set out to combat oppression.  His tale includes, among others, an irascible barmaid, Aldonza (Talia Thiesfield), now named The Lady Dulcinea; an innkeeper; Don Quixote’s niece; her fiancée, played by one of the prisoners known as “The Duke” (David Edwards); and padre (Matthew Krob).

Librettist Dale Wasserman adapted the musical from his play, “I, Don Quixote” which, in turn, is based on the 17th century novel, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes.   The device of a play being enacted within the show works well.  It can sometimes become a bit convoluted and hard to explain, but it allows the production to open up and portray many characters and sets that would, otherwise, be unworkable.  The themes brought out in the show, such as being true to your beliefs, standing up to your ideals and passions, and facing our fears, are universal.  They are, in part, what make Man of La Mancha such a perennial favorite among theater companies.

Composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion have crafted one of the finest scores to come from a Broadway musical.  Almost every song is memorable and range from rousing anthems, comedic gems, and plaintive ballads.  They include the title song, “Dulcinea,” “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” “It’s All the Same,” and “The Impossible Dream.”  The very talented cast has rich and powerful voices that melodically resonate throughout the venerable playhouse.

The cast is led by David Pittsinger as Cervantes/Don Quixote.  He perfectly embodies both characters.  He has a commanding presence on stage whether playing the somber, matter-of-fact Cervantes waiting for his time before the inquisition or as Don Quixote, the slightly mad, righteous knight.  His impressive voice brings depth and brilliance to each of his songs.  Brian Michael Hoffman as his manservant/Sancho Panza while, at first, coming across as more a fool, quickly demonstrates he is a man not to be trifled with.  His love, admiration, and genuine caring for his master rings true. Talia Thiesfield’s take charge, independent-minded Aldonza/Dulcinea can be as cantankerous as an aggrieved hornet or as disconsolate as a discarded child.  She displays strength and vulnerability in her role.  James Van Treuren is a demanding, forceful overseer of the prison cells as their Governor and is a touch more magnanimous as the Innkeeper.  David Edwards, with a leer and a self-important gait, gives his characters “The Duke,” a prison rapscallion, and Dr. Sanson Carrasco, fiancée of Quixote’s niece, a pompous, haughty air.

David Edwards, doubling as director, takes a firm rein to the production, keeping its pacing brisk.  He assuredly handles the back and forth between reality and make believe.  Two central scenes—where Aldonza is brutally attacked and carried away by the denizens of the inn and the Knight of the Mirrors, where Don Quixote is, literally, faced with his demons, are handled with confidence and aplomb.

Scenic Designer Daniel Nischan has constructed a simple set of connecting platforms, but they serve their purpose well, both as hiding places for the prisoners and as basic building blocks for the tale Cervantes tells.  Along with Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott they have created a space that is confining as well as liberating.

Man of La Mancha, a production to be savored and applauded, through October 2nd.

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