BWW Reviews: MAN OF LA MANCHA at Austin Playhouse Is Eye-Catching But Slightly Lacking
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, chivalry isn't dead, but it certainly has to fight to survive. As long as chivalry, kindness, and optimism are challenged, the story of Don Quixote will continue to be told. Perhaps that's one of the reasons behind Austin Playhouse's decision to open their 2013-2014 season with Man of La Mancha. Whatever the reason, the production is highly entertaining and a stunning feast for the eyes, though a couple performances could be tighter and more effective.
The classic musical with book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh tells the story of Don Quixote, an older Spaniard who out of madness believes himself to be a courageous knight, as a play within a play performed by Quixote's creator, novelist Miguel de Cervantes, and other prisoners as they sit in a prison common room and await the Spanish Inquisition. As with previous Austin Playhouse productions, the design work is among the best in Central Texas. The costumes by Jessica Colley-Mitchell are appropriately ragged and dirty. Don Day provides stark, harsh, and bright lighting in the prison scenes and gives a warm, summary feel to the show within the show, creating contrast between the real world of Cervantes and the fantasy world of Quixote. The sound, a problem in Austin Playhouse's previous musical The Triumph of Love, is much stronger here, largely due to sound designer Joel Mercado-See and his use of strategically placed choir mics. And the large, cavernous, elaborate set by set designer/director Don Toner is absolutely fantastic.
Unfortunately, Toner's direction isn't quite as strong as his set. In some moments, particularly at the beginning and end of the show, the entire cast of prisoners remains on stage even when they're not actively involved in the scene, but in others, the ensemble is only present when needed. It seems that Toner has two separate ideas regarding how to stage the show, one in which the audience is consistently reminded of the reality of Cervantes's imprisonment and another in which the real and fantasy worlds are clearly and deliberately separated. Either idea can work, but together they are at odds with one another.
That said, I'm surprised Toner doesn't double down on the permanently on-stage ensemble. His cast is strong, full-voiced, and consistently present and in character regardless of how involved or detached they are from the scene. Wendy Zavaleta and Claire Grasso are particularly effective in their supporting roles of Quixote's housekeeper and niece, respectively. Josh Wechsler is also a stand-out as the Padre, and his voice is outstanding, particularly in his solo "To Each His Dulcinea." But of the supporting players, the most memorable is Jacob Trussell as Quixote's faithful squire, Sancho Panza. Though the young, handsome Trussell may not look the part (As the character's last name of "Panza" literally translates to "belly," the character is typically played by a portly actor), he's wonderful in the role. Trussell has one of the strongest voices in the cast, and the puppy dog charm and loyalty he brings to the role is absolutely perfect.
Unfortunately, the show's two leads are both a bit uneven. In the dual roles of Cervantes and Quixote, Rick Roemer is a bit better as the former than the latter. His Quixote is too firmly planted in reality. While I'm assuming he may have been told to pull back given the intimate space at Austin Playhouse, Quixote is a larger than life character and needs to be played as such in order to stand out among the characters around him. However, Roemer's voice is an absolute pleasure, especially in the iconic anthem "The Impossible Dream." Conversely, Boni Hester's acting is incredible, but the vocal demands of the role are a bit too much. As Aldonza, Hester is appropriately crass, crude, tough, harsh, and just as courageous as Quixote, albeit with a drastically different world view. Sadly, the role is written for a soprano, and Hester's upper register isn't her strongest suit. She struggles a bit a few of her numbers, but her final one, which is much more accessible to an alto voice, is outstanding.