BWW Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA Seeks and Finds the Impossible Dream at Porthouse
On November 23, 1965, I entered New York's ANTA Washington Square Theatre, which was built so the audience looked down upon the theatre-in-the round stage in a configuration that resembled a hospital surgical suite, to see "Man of La Mancha." The show had opened the night before. I knew nothing of the production. Little was I aware that it would be one of the most mind-blowing experiences in my theater life.
"Man of La Mancha,"has a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh. It was adapted from Wasserman's non-musical 1959 teleplay"I Don Quixote," which was, in turn, inspired by Miguel de Cervantes's17th-century novel.
That production starred Richard Kiley, whose performance, in my opinion, was one of the greatest in professional musical theatre history.
When the lights went off, after Kiley's last speech, which was performed with pin spots on the actor's eyes, which slowly expired as he exhaled his last breath, and the choral singing of "The Impossible Dream," I sat frozen, unable to leave the image on stage and return to the real world.
That image remained so strong that when the touring production of the show came to the Hanna Theatre several years later, I walked into the lobby of the theatre, and made an instant decision not to see the show, as I did not want to erase that past memorable moment of wonder.
Besides Kiley, the original Broadway production starred Columbus-born Joan Dienar as Eldonza. Her vocal range was so unusual that musical conceiver Mitch Leigh said: "Joan had a three-and-a-half-octave range. We tailored the music to her voice."
The musical's enthralling score includes such classics as "It's All the Same," "Dulcinea"
"I'm Only Thinking of Him," "I Really Like Him," "What Does He Want of Me?," "Little Bird, Little Bird," "Golden Helmet of Mambrino," "To Each His Dulcinea, and, of course, one of musical theater's most memorable songs, "The Impossible Dream."
The tale, set in the late sixteenth century, relates the story of "a failed author-soldier-actor and tax collector, Miguel de Cervantes, whohas been thrown into a prison, along with his manservant. They have been charged with foreclosing on a monastery. Their fellow prisoners attack them, eager to steal the contents of the large trunk Cervantes has brought with him. However, a sympathetic criminal known as the Governor suggests setting up a mock trial instead. Only if Cervantes is found guilty will he have to hand over his possessions. A cynical prisoner, the Duke, charges Cervantes with being an idealist and a bad poet. Cervantes pleads guilty, but then asks if he may offer a defense, in the form of a play, acted out by him and all the prisoners. The Governor agrees."
Thus, with makeup applied and in costume, we see Don Quixote, the knight-errant and his squire, Sancho Panza, go off on an adventure to fight the unbeatable foe, meet his Dulcinea, confront a four-armed giant, which in reality is a windmill, collapse, recover long enough to sing his final thoughts, and tell the tale of a quest well done and hope for the future.
The priest sings a psalm for the dead. Sancho is distraught at his friend's death. Aldonza tries to comfort him, saying that Alonso Quijano may be dead but the spirit and will of Don Quixote lives on. Yes, as his words state, "And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest. That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest. And the world will be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star."
What a message to be aware of in this, a world of chaos and misdirection, where decisions are often made "without question or cause!"
The Porthouse production, under the adept and sensitive direction of Terri Kent, is graced with the creative, distinctive, compelling choreography of Martin Céspedes, who, once again, proves why he is considered one of the best of the local choreographers and visionary of stage pictures.
Céspedes, incidentally, was in a national touring production of La Mancha.
Kent and Céspedes have taken a different approach to the staging. Instead of the common frenetic and often-laugh inducing presentation, the duo has chosen, instead, to take slow-down-the-action and sound, all the way from the music pace to the actor's movements, to stress the underlying philosophical meaning of the script. Their Don Quixote is delusional, in a quest to save the world, rather than a crazy man in search of an unknown foe.
The slow, exaggerated dance and physical movements, much in the form of a slow-motion film, whether it be in the rape or taunting scenes, or the speeches, are purposeful.
The artful lighting, effectively designed by Cynthia Stillings, accentuates what must be seen and aids in developing the intended moods.
The dancers are perfectly honed. They move as a unit, developing the meaning. Even the human horses help create the reality.
The vocalizations are superb. Meanings of lyrics are stressed. It's not only the sound that impresses, it is the clarity of concept development!
Johnathan Swoboda and his orchestra support the singers, rather than drowning them out, as is commonly done.
Congrats to Parker Strong, the sound mixer, for nicely balancing the music and voices.
The costumes, especially those for the Knight of Mirrors scene, were era and attitude correct.
Patrick Ulrich's impressively designed set, three dark-textured pillars, levels and a descending staircase, enhanced the visual appeal and aided in creating the right images.
Kudos to the cast for their authentic Spanish pronunciations, which added to the reality of the message.
Fabio Polanco created a sensitive and heart-felt Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote. His was a realistic quest to fulfill the character's impossible dream, rather than a theatrical gimmick-laden image. His proficient singing voice, surety of character development and emotional involvement in creating the right image, was impressive.
Timothy Culver's Sancho was that of a true believer, an admirer of his master's blind search for truth, rather than the common development of the man as a buffoon. Well done!
Genny Lis Padilla, she of fiery personality and superb voice, was mesmerizing as Aldonza. Again, through clear directing concept, the role came to life as telling the tale that even a woman born in a dung heap deserves to be treated as a valued human. Impressive!
Strong performances were also given by Brian Chandler (The Governor/Innkeeper), Cody Hernandez (The Duke/Dr. Carrasco/Knight of Mirrors), Zoe Dongas (Antonia), Jay White (Padre) and the Muleteers.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Terri Kent's soul of humanness and Martin Céspedes's creativity and visual perception are stamped all over this captivating production. It is a "Man of La Mancha" for the 2019s. It's a musical drama which has an important story to tell. GO! Experience theater at is finest!
"Man of La Mancha" runs at Porthouse Theatre through June 29. For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to http://www.porthousetheatre.com/.
NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE:"Tintypes," the "Yankee Doodle Boy" Americana musical revue from July 4-20.