BWW Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA Dares to Dream at The Georgetown Palace Theatre
The historical Georgetown Palace Theatre has recently opened their newest show, MAN OF LA MANCHA, which runs April 14th-May 7th. The show, for those unfamiliar, is inspired by the seventeenth century literary masterpiece Don Quixote and its author Miguel de Cervantes. It is not a faithful retelling of that work, but rather presented as a play within a play as we see Cervantes himself and his fellow prisoners performing his story as they await trial by the Spanish Inquisition.
This production, directed by Georgetown Palace Theatre's artistic director Mary Ellen Butler, proves itself to be an unexpected delight. The Palace and its staff have a penchant for being highly ambitious with their selections, a strategy that sometimes pays off beautifully and sometimes results in a less pleasant reception. I did not go into this evening as a fan of this show, having always found the music to be somewhat self-indulgent and repetitive - a not uncommon phenomenon with golden age Broadway musicals which reveled in beautiful, rich voices for an evening's entertainment more so than engaging in character development, large production numbers, or spectacle - but I happily left the theater with a new appreciation for this piece.
This result comes, in no small part, because of a very solid principal cast guiding us through the evening. Corralling the actors on stage and leading us along the journey is Damon Brown as Cervantes/Don Quixote. Brown is a newcomer to the Palace stage, but his debut is a potent one. Brown is a very sly performer who provides us not one, but two stellar performances during the evening. His first decent from Cervantes into Quixote, done on stage and even narrated to the audience, is done with a rich finesse and smoothness that you still almost don't see it happen until suddenly Quixote is in front of you, and then he immediately captivates the house with his clear, rich baritone. He imbues his knight errant with charm, wit, hope, longing, and such honor that it becomes easy to forgive the character's almost pathological need to alter the reality around him. Indeed, never before have I ever understood why the people around him would indulge him in his fantasies, but by the end of the night it is not only Aldonza who wants his reality to be our reality, it is all of us.
Aldonza, played by Palace regular Sheree Bristoll, provides a sympathetic, hard headed, and passionate counterpoint to Brown's titular hero. Her struggle between how she sees herself and how Quixote sees her is a potent tragedy of self reflection. Watching her be abused by the men around her and shunned by the women easily translates for us why she cannot fathom, and is shaken and upset, when a man insists she is a creature of value and worth. Bristoll has a lovely soprano used to quite a nice effect in this role, and her earthy brashness when holding her own against the rowdy guests at the inn is formidable. It is a rough line to walk without being too powerful or too weak, and she treads the line lightly and well. The bold and brash aspect of her Aldonza is admittedly more potent than her quiet moments of self reflection, but she achieves something very difficult to do - she tells a huge amount of her character arc when she is not the focus of the scene. I always enjoy watching actors embody their character's lives when they aren't necessarily what the audience is directed to watch, and Aldonza makes her transformation from skeptic to devotee in an unobtrusive but powerful way every moment she is on the stage. Particularly in the scene in which Quixote is knighted by the inn keeper. The life and energy she brings to the stage add a wonderful zest to the evening.
The final component of the lead trio is Art Rodriguez as Sancho Panza, Quixote's devoted squire. Rodriguez plays a humorous and enjoyable patsy who delivers many of the evenings funniest moments. It is quite clear, however, that he struggles vocally with the material. Panzo is a rather high tenor, and Rodriguez is not, which led him to smartly choose to talk-sing or focus on acting the lyrics more so than trying to sing them. That was a wise decision, but the lack of melodic underpinnings in the performance does strike a noticeable chord with the audience. Character-wise he was as deft as his compatriots, but musically the vocals did draw away from an otherwise well crafted performance.
I also must give special accolades to Clifford Butler (The Padre), Jennifer Tucker (The Housekeeper) and Shelby Schisler (Antonia, Quixote's niece). The first time these characters emerge from the imprisoned rabble is a highlight of the show. Their physical character transformations are solid enough, but they then go on to give an absolutely stunning rendition of "I'm Only Thinking of Him" - a number that easily rivaled "The Impossible Dream" as the number with the greatest audience response. Indeed, I saw several audience members perk up noticeably during this song, and it caused the greatest amount of excited babble during intermission. IF Brown and Bristoll set the stage and the ambience for us, it is Butler, Tucker and Schisler that provide the hook that engages the audience completely.
The ensemble and supporting characters provide a supportive environment and play their roles well for the most part. They are all present and engaged, and there are some fun moments with the Innkeeper (Clint Cox) and Dr. Carrasco (Bradley Costas) who provide pivotal plot points. There are, though, some unfortunate issues with some of the ensemble men's vocals being incredibly off pitch and out of tune. Uncomfortably so in some moments, like during the song "Little Bird, Little Bird", though thankfully those moments are fewer than the moments when they succeed in hitting their parts. There are also one or two of the ensemble men playing muleteers who have not yet learned the distinction between staying alive in a scene and drawing focus in a negative way. These tend to be younger performers, so hopefully this will ebb with age and experience, but it would have been nice to see the director have them tone down their distracting antics.
As to the directing, Butler provides us with a nice, smooth flow to the evening. It was only interrupted twice by scene changes that may have needed just a bit more rehearsing, both Times Centering on a large table which became a well cover, and it was a cumbersome and heavy transition both times so I do wonder if the result was worth the effort to have that doubling effect. Beyond that, though, the use of space, the flow of the show, and the ability to let her actors embody and enliven the stage was one of the most enjoyable things I have seen her direct. There was, in my opinion, one major missed opportunity which I found myself desperately wishing had been pursued, but that does not detract from the rest of the show it just means I think a little more specificity could have brought those scenes up to a wonderful new level. The moments in question involve Cervantes/Quixote referring to a number of characters as chess pieces, and the staging ALMOST had them then moving around and across the stage in the same movement patterns that those pieces use on a chessboard. It was close enough that I noticed they weren't doing it, and then I so desperately wished they were because it would have been brilliant staging to physically embody both the character's role and mind set as well as exemplify the battle of wills taking place in the scene. It does not lessen the impact of the show, but it is an example of how sometimes when crafting a show we allow ourselves to accept "good enough" instead of demanding "good", so I cannot but wish a little more effort was put in to make this a truly memorable highlight.
On the technical side of things the show is on fairly solid ground. The set is well crafted and provides a great atmosphere of claustrophobia while also effortlessly lending itself to large outdoor scenes. Costumes from The Point Theatre work nicely in the setting, and the props by Rebecca McPherson are good except for a very jarring set of mirror shields used towards the end of the show. The mirrored side looks fantastic, but the actors have been instructed to keep them facing upstage until the reveal, so we are forced to look at the backside for a long time, and they look, well, I'm sorry to say they look almost like cardboard that has been painted black. It is so visually aggravating that it takes the audience out of the play until these items are out of sight because it is so anachronistic to the rest of the ambiance. The lighting, designed by Faith Castaneda, utilizes a lush, rich color palette which does a beautiful job enhancing the show. There are, however, a few transitions, usually at the beginning of songs, that are sudden and heavy handed enough in their drastic color shift that they pull focus from the actors. Had those moments been refined to a less visually noticeable jump there would have been very few issues. I also enjoyed the dingy, murky atmosphere created in the dungeon. It was just enough to give the gritty feel without going so far that we couldn't see the performers anymore, and that is a tough balancing act, so kudos for that. Stage combat by Deanna Belardinelli sometimes worked well and sometimes looked as if the actors were uncomfortable with it. I don't know if more rehearsal would have fixed it, but the major fight scene was so slow and methodical and fake that it was disappointing. I would be curious to see the show again towards closing to see if the cast has become more comfortable with that moment, as I can tell Deanna has given them the moves and tools to make it an exciting scene, but the execution was lacking on opening night. And finally, sound design by David Sherline was the rockiest of the technical aspects. Microphones were set at vastly different levels that did not always work in favor of the vocal timbre of the performer, and were suddenly turned on when an actor would hit the stage mid-line rather than be turned on so we could hear them approach from off stage as they had been directed. There were also some minor issues with microphones providing fuzzy sounds or feedback. Sound seems to be the biggest issue at most every theater in central Texas, so some of the body microphone-based issues are to be expected, but some of the level settings and design could have used some more attention.
All in all I would say that Man of La Mancha is certainly one of the better shows the Palace has presented in a little while, and I was pleasantly shocked that I left the theater as a fan of a show that previously I had never cared for. This is some solid work from a lot of dedicated volunteers and if you are at all interested in seeing the show I encourage you to do so. Tickets are available at http://www.georgetownpalace.com/ and the show runs Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees until May 7th.
Photo Credits: Andy Sharp