BWW Reviews: The Impossible Dream Falls Flat in Lackluster MAN OF LA MANCHA at PPAC
Man of La Mancha originally appeared on Broadway in 1965, when it ran for over two thousand performances. That original production won multiple Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and has since spawned a number of revivals, national tours, a movie adaptation and numerous translations in other countries.
At the center La Mancha's story is Miguel de Cervantes, a poet who has been thrown into prison during the Spanish Inquisition. Set upon by his fellow prisoners, Cervantes asks for the chance to defend himself and his writings, lest they toss his manuscript into the nearby fire. The prisoners agree and so begins the musical's play-within-a-play. Cervantes transforms himself into Alonso Quijana, an old man who believes himself to be Don Quixote, a knight errant who must go forth against his enemies and stand for everything that is just and right, all in the name of his lady love.
Cervantes is joined in his tale by all the other prisoners, who take on many roles, from Quixote's faithful servant Sancho to Alonso Quijana's concerned family back home, including a niece and housekeeper. There is also an inn, which Quixote believes to be a castle, occupied by an innkeeper, his wife, a band of rough muleteers, and a kitchen wench named Aldonza. It is in Aldonza that Quixote thinks he has found his Dulcinea, the fair maiden in whose name he believes he must faithfully execute his knightly duties.
There are many excellent reasons why Man of La Mancha has been one of Broadway's most beloved and enduring musicals. Many of the show's songs are gorgeous and stunning, especially "The Impossible Dream," which has become a standard and taken on a life of its own, beyond the confines of the musical. A number of important and universal themes also run through the play, including religion vs. science, the power of imagination, the power of faith, and how believing in something can change us and change our lives.
Unfortunately, many of those reasons, from the power of the music to the deeply human themes are absent in this lackluster and lifeless touring production. It's hard to say exactly why or how, but it's undeniable that something is missing. The electricity, the energy, the human connections are completely missing in this production where every line is a rote line reading and every song is robbed of emotional depth or connection.
Just one example is the song "Dulcinea." When Quixote first sees Aldonza, he immediately believes her to be Dulcinea, the embodiment of the ideal woman, the fairest of fair ladies and the woman for whom he must proclaim his love and loyalty. So, this being a musical, he sings about it. But, in this production, Jack E. Curenton, as Quixote, spends most of the song looking straight out over the audience, instead of looking at Aldonza, played here by Jessica Norland. Then, when he turns and looks at her, she turns away from him and looks at the audience, with a strange expression on her face. There's a total lack of any connection between the two of them and that lack of emotional connection plagues every song and every moment of the production.
Also not helping is the casting of Curenton as Cervantes/Quixote. While Curenton looks the part and has some charisma, he doesn't really have what it takes to carry this show. La Mancha is really a musical that rises and falls, succeeds or fails, on the shoulders of the actor playing Cervantes. The best example is the show's quintessential and most famous song, "The Impossible Dream." Curenton just can't pull it off. In this production, most of the song is actually spoken, instead of sung, robbing it of its musical power and beauty. When he does try to sing the final moments, the weak attempt just falls flat. A song that should blow the walls off the theater barely registers.
As Aldonza/Dulcinea, Norland fares only slightly better. She, again, looks the part, but like her faithful knight, she just isn't believable in any other way. Her line readings are lifeless and her songs lack any depth or emotion. Her best musical moment comes during "Aldonza," when she gets pissed and finally lets her emotion, primarily rage, come through in her singing. At the play's end, she does do some nice work, but it's mostly wasted at that point. In fact, her most important line is treated as a throwaway and given almost no focus or attention.
There's a sizeable ensemble as well, of course, and some of them do provide some very nice performances. Rachel Felstein is great as Antonia, Quijana's niece. She's got a beautiful singing voice and her number, "I'm Only Thinking Of Him," is a high point of the show. That's in part because of the two other performers in that number with her. Yvonne Strumecki is perfect as Housekeeper and Chuck Hodges is brilliant as Padre. It's almost a shame that the three of them aren't featured even more in the show, since they have three of the best voices and are also among the most talented actors. Chuck Caruso as Governor/Innkeeper and Arthur Lazalde as Carrasco are also wonderful standouts in the cast. Caruso has some fantastic comedic moments and Lazalde has a great voice. He seems like he'd make a perfect Don Quixote someday.
Until then, audiences will have to settle for this touring production. One where two actors who wear mule costumes upstage the other actors at least three times. There are three scenes where the actors playing the mules have more energy, more life and more charisma, in their burlap animal costumes, than the actors who are playing actual human beings. The show is just that soulless. While Man of La Mancha should bring audiences an impossible dream, this one offers an unexpected disappointment.
Man of La Mancha runs through Sunday, February 16th at Providence Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available for purchase online, by phone at (401) 421-2787 , or at the PPAC Box Office located at 220 Weybosset Street in downtown Providence. Regular Box Office Hours are now in effect and are Monday - Friday from 10A-5P; Saturday 10A-2P and through curtain time(s) on show days. Visit www.ppacri.org for more information.