BWW Reviews: TUTS' Amazing MAN OF LA MANCHA Reaches the Unreachable Star
The Spanish Inquisition was a harrowing and dark time in history. It has been the fodder for countless novels, plays, and books. Yet, I never had much faith that a musical would be a good medium to explore that horrific era. I figured I wouldn't enjoy the 1965 musical adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote. Certainly some of the classics appeal to me, but the darker, rawer, more edgy musicals are the ones that I really love. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think upon seeing MAN OF LA MANCHA for the first time that it would find a place in the Parthenon of my favorite musicals. However, Theatre Under the Stars' (TUTS) marvelous production has ensured that this gem of a show will forever have a safe and warm spot in my heart.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, the musical opens with Miguel de Cervantes and his faithful servant being imprisoned in a large holding cell during the Spanish Inquisition. They have officially been charged with foreclosing on a church, but the mock court of the prisoners charges Cervantes with being an idealist and a bad poet. The other prisoners tear through his belongings. One finds a manuscript and is prepared to burn it. To stall the man, Miguel de Cervantes quickly puts on some make up and pretends to be Alonso Quijana. Quijana is fond of the tales of knights and decides to become one. He renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, take his servant as a squire, and sets off on an unforgettable and perilous adventure.
Director Bruce Lumpkin creates a dingy and dark world in the prison. The ambience is foreboding and entirely uninviting, making the desperation of each character firmly believable. Furthermore, he utilizes Brechtian style to construct the play within a play in a realistic way. The majority of the cast is in view of the audience at all times, never truly leaving the stage (except at intermission). As prisoners they would have nowhere else to go, and that point is made clear. Emphasis is placed on telling the story and telling it in a way that is truthful to the late sixteenth century prison setting. Every prop and costume in the show either comes from the prison surroundings or Miguel de Cervantes' trunk, which further emphasizes the candid sincerity of the direction. Bruce Lumpkin's MAN OF LA MANCHA is gritty and visceral, raw and real, and filled with a lot of surprising emotional impact.
Michelle Gaudette's brilliant choreography for the show is simply spectacular. When appropriate, it captures authentic ethnic flair, like the gypsy dancing in "Moorish Dance" and the use of Spanish palmas throughout the production. Likewise, Michelle Gaudette's dances are infused with stunning athleticism and vibrant sensuality. She consistently choreographs her cast to create arresting and gorgeous visual pictures that convey the emotionality of the music and lyrics with ease.
Starring as Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote, Paul Schoeffler brings vivid and charming life to the character. He expertly portrays the character's ability to think on his toes and go wherever his imagination may take him. He is warm, caring, and only sees the best of the best qualities in people. The other prisoners see him as misguided, but Paul Schoeffler ensures that Miguel de Cervantes' infectious and idealized hope constantly pervades and brightly radiates through every one of his actions. This shining hope is reflected in his sparkling voice. He sings each song with charisma and pizzazz, but it his showstopping rendition of "The Quest (The Impossible Dream)" that really seals the deal and brings the house down with thunderous applause and cheers.
Michelle DeJean further proves how lucky Houston is that she has come back home with her stirring and striking portrayal of Aldonza. She imbues the character with palpable strength and passion. Her disillusioned and narrow view of the world constantly clashes with Miguel de Cervantes' imagination. Moreover, Michelle DeJean's show stealing and rousing performances of "It's All The Same" and "Aldonza" showcase her mesmerizing Broadway belt in addition to thrilling the audience.
Josh Lamon's Sancho is hilarious, affable, memorable, and quickly became my favorite character in the show. Filling the character with boundless energy, Josh Lamon makes Sancho both fun and the role of a lifetime. His bright and immaculately tuned voice worked perfectly on the humorous "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip."
Playing The Padre, Laurent Giroux was stellar. His character bought into the tale of Don Quixote with reckless abandon, which really made Laurent Giroux shine during the comical "I'm Only Thinking of Him," the sentimental "To Each His Dulcinea (Reprise)," and his sobering, melancholic rendition of "The Psalm."
Both Tom Alan Robbins as Innkeeper/Governor and Bruce Winant as Dr. Carrasco do excellent jobs as the men who think they rule the roost in the prison. Neither is particularly warm to Miguel de Cervantes at first, and it is winging them over to save his manuscript that drives the story forward. Tom Alan Robbins' character warms first and he brings fun wit to his roles while Bruce Winant's Dr. Carrasco never fully believes in the man. Instead, he tries his dastardly best to stop the tale of Don Quixote, especially during the magnetizing and illustrious "The Knight of the Mirrors" number.
The smarmy and swaggering Muleteers are keenly danced and adroitly portrayed by Shaun R. Parry, Ceasar F. Barajas, and Spencer Rowe. They are devastatingly imposing and fear inducing in their aesthetic, especially Shaun R. Parry's Pedro. As a collective, they have no regard for human dignity or compassion, providing a rough hewn edge to the show and keeping it grounded in its ability to showcase the evils that some humans inflict upon others.
Other standout performances from the extremely talented cast were delivered by Cesar F. Barajas and Matthew Steffens as the uproariously funny donkey and horse in "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)," the comic timing and vocal dexterity of Maegan McConnell's Antonia and Julia Krohn's The Housekeeper in "I'm Only thinking of Him," Kristin Warren's stunning body control and poise as the Moorish Dancer, and Philip Michael Baskerville's soulful and moving lamentations as the Moor at the top of Act I.
Needless to say, the entire cast and ensemble deliver remarkable performances the whole evening, and each member is deserving of individual praise for their hard work. Kudos and respect must be given to Michael Brian Dunn, Michael Tapley, Jessica Vosk, Marguerite Willbanks, Danny Dyer, Katelyn Johnson, Elyse Langley, Cole Ryden, and Eadie Scott.
Fight Choreography by Jeff Wisnoski is gripping and captures an epic sense of swashbuckling adventure. Moreover, the fights appear to be happening in the moment and no move is telegraphed.
Thom Culcasi directs the orchestra with precision and gusto. Even though they aren't in the pit for this show, they sound fantastic. Likewise, Thom Culcasi's Music Direction ensures that Mitch Leigh's classic score is accessible, enjoyable, unforgettable, and provocative.
Patton Campbell's Scenic Design is a recreation of the original Broadway scenic design by Howard Bay. Upon entering Sarofim Hall, the set steals the breath away from the audience. No curtain keeps it hidden from view, and we get to study this gorgeous, intricate, and highly detailed masterpiece. Patton Campbell has designed a fantastic set for TUTS' production of MAN OF LA MANCHA, and it is easily the best set I have seen on stage at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Howard Bay's Costume Design perfectly captures the filth and desolation of the poor and downtrodden. The pieces are ragged, tattered, and filled with holes. Even the seemingly rich have runs in their stockings, showcasing how prison debases everyone to the same level. The great and realistic costuming is also bright in colors, ensuring that the musical can be flashy despite making the misery palpable.
George Hirsch's Lighting Design is stark yet complex, creating a magnetism and beauty in its seemingly pared down opulence. Using many instruments and fantastic blends of colors, the lighting design shimmers without getting in the way. The effect lighting that creates a series of dazzling spinning irises on the floors combined with the mirror ball for "The Knight of the Mirrors" segment is inspired and magnificent. Paired with the cleverly designed mirrored helmet, every element of stage craft works together to create a stunning scene of theatrical brilliance in that moment.
Christopher "Kit" Bond's Sound Design is highly successful and well appreciated for a majority of the production. Sitting in Row N of the Center Orchestra, the blend of sounds was solid. However, when palmas was used and or when the cast scraped and banged items on the floor, some spoken and sung dialogue was muddled or even entirely lost. Despite this inconvenience, there was never a dull moment in the performance and Christopher "Kit" Bond's crisp and clear work ensured that almost every line, sung or spoken, and the wonderful orchestra was well heard by all.
Bruce Lumpkin has directed a fabulous, gritty, and exciting version of MAN OF LA MANCHA. The production is made all the more striking and memorable by incorporating a visceral raw edge that I never expected from a musical written in 1965. Moreover, it's theme of hope for a better day is still applicable and can be appreciated universally. Every song is sung to perfection and every scene is acted with consummate professionalism. It is safe to say that this production of MAN OF LA MANCHA is quite possibly the absolute best musical I have ever seen TUTS locally produce. The last time I was this completely blown away by a performance at TUTS was when I, as a third grader, saw the World Premiere production of Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
TUTS' epic and enthralling MAN OF LA MANCHA reaches and even surpasses the unreachable star in Sarofim Hall at The Hobby Center through March 10, 2013. You won't want to miss this show, so please visit http://www.tuts.com or call (713) 558 - TUTS (8887) for more information and tickets.
All photos by Bruce Bennett. Courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS).
Michelle DeJean as Aldonza with members of the MAN OF LA MANCHA cast.
Paul Schoeffler as Don Quixote with members of the MAN OF LA MANCHA cast.
Members of the MAN OF LA MANCHA cast.