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BWW Reviews: Star Performances Invigorate MTW's MAN OF LA MANCHA Revival

With two impressive lead stars at the forefront of a fresh, dynamic re-staging of a classic work, Musical Theatre West's brand new production of the 1965 Tony Award-winning musical MAN OF LA MANCHA is, hands down, one of the most complex, beautifully-rendered musical revivals to grace Southern California in some time. A laudable blend of strong musical performances, sublime visual artistry, and a labyrinthine story, this intensely-moving theatrical offering will continue to wow audiences at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, CA through this Sunday, February 26.

Proving once again that it is one of the area's most exciting, top-tier regional theater companies, MTW has assembled an incredible team—led by Ovation Award-winning director Nick DeGruccio—to bring the play-within-a-play conceit to vivid life. Right from the start, the show's remarkable set (a stunning design by Kevin Clowes) immediately drops the audience right in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition, circa 1594, where a rather large ensemble of actors (dressed in dingy-chic costumes designed by Cathleen Edwards) are scattered about like discarded mounds of filthy rags.

You see, in the musical, these actors are posing as imprisoned denizens of various shapes and genders. They have all been locked away in a dungeon dwelling somewhere deep in the bowels of Seville, Spain, where they all share a palpable fear and dread of what's to come. Fear is soon draped in curiosity as the dark cavern is suddenly bathed in blinding light thanks to a chain-suspended, slow-as-molasses platform that descends from the opening above. On it stands convicted tax collector/actor Miguel de Cervantes (the amazing Davis Gaines) and his nameless manservant (the hardworking Justin Robertson) being escorted by prison guards down to the depths as punishment for their crimes.

With all his possessions in tow, the new arrivals are immediately attacked by the others. Pleading for them to cease the looting—and to not torch a manuscript the prisoners have discovered—Cervantes asks that he be tried in a mock trial right there in the prison. Unique as the situation already is, Cervantes proposes to the room's alpha males—one of which the others call "The Governor" (Richard Gould) and the other, more cynical one they call "The Duke" (Damon Kirsche)—that he be allowed to mount his defense in the form of a play which he and the other prisoners will act out.

With his manuscript serving as the work-in-progress script and with the help of his manservant—and some quickly-applied make-up—Cervantes transforms himself into Alonso Quijana, a senile old man that has gone so "mad" that he now thinks he is actually the heroic knight-errant Don Quixote de La Mancha.

Most of the musical's twisty machinations are ensconced inside this so-called play-within-the-play, where it tracks Don Quixote's adventurous quest accompanied by trusty squire Sancho Panza (played by his manservant, natch) while avoiding confrontation from his evil nemesis he calls The Enchanter.

Along the way, the goofy pair happen upon an inn run by an innkeeper (played by "The Governor"—confused yet?) and is populated by various staffers, patrons and muleteers (all played by the dungeon's prisoners). Thinking this inn is actually a castle, the crazy old loon asks the innkeeper (whom he thinks is the Lord of the castle) to dub him formally as a knight—an honor that, once bestowed, guarantees him, Don Quixote, of triumph against all enemies.

But the crazy man is suddenly distracted by the sight of the inn's surly but attractive serving wench (and occasional prostitute) Aldonza (played with such unencumbered emotional heft by Lesli Margherita) whom he thinks is actually the Lady Dulcinea, the woman Don Quixote has sworn to love and protect at all costs. Aldonza is both flattered and irritated by Quixote's delusion about her. So used to being treated like a filthy dishrag, she is confused yet annoyed by the flattering attention—feelings that are clearly noticed by the rowdy men in the vicinity.

Meanwhile, back at the opulent Quijana estate, Quijana's very-worried niece Antonia (Karenssa Legear) along with the housekeeper (Dynell Leigh) seeks council from the local priest ("The Padre" played by Jason Webb) and his own fiancé Dr. Carrasco (played in the play-within-the-play by "The Duke") on how to handle the embarrassing problem of Quijana's delusional escapades which have now resulted in his disappearance. Playing to his greed and vanity, the Padre manipulates the status-hungry, self-centered Dr. Carrasco into seeking out the missing Quijana himself, bring him home, and then cure him of his madness. Carrasco, of course, accepts the challenge.

A complicated gem of a musical, MAN OF LA MANCHA—with a book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion—is as poetically complex and richly-layered as the two stories it tries to weave simultaneously, all for the ultimate quest to show that a man's ability to fulfill romantic notions—however far-out and crazy they may be—are actually much more of an indicator of a life well-led. For both Quijana and, by proxy, Cervantes (who desperately wants to save his manuscript even while incarcerated), living the "impossible dream" is having the unbound freedom to believe what truly is in your heart, even under the derision of others. "Facts," explains Quixote, "are the enemies of truth."

And much like Quijana/Quixote's "impossible dream," the audience is also asked to suspend much of their own preconceived notions of traditional theater and take in this show's lavishly abundant textures for the musical's full effect to sear into you. Combined with the show's cornucopia of songs—which are also as wonderfully schizophrenic as its title character—MAN OF LA MANCHA can be a great singer's showcase. From the regal splendor of the title song, the sweeping romanticism of "Dulcinea," to the triumphantly belted, well-known anthem "The Impossible Dream," the show's score is magnificent, especially when sung by really good vocalists—which, luckily this show has in abundance, particularly within its two lead stars.

Yes, this musical, more than anything, is a musical theater actor's dream. At the center of these incredible proceedings is the stunning lead performance by Gaines, who himself is best known for logging in more than 2,000 performances playing the title role in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Here embodying what amounts to be, really, three distinct roles, Gaines morphs seamlessly into each personality with believable gusto and immovable commitment. Make-up and costume notwithstanding, the actor seriously disappears into his characters while singing the daylights out of each of his spectacular numbers, most notably in the first act-closing "The Impossible Dream." His version of the well-known standard? Perfectly delivered and absolutely superb.

As his steadfast sidekick, Robertson gamely brings much of the show's comical moments and appears to be enjoying the heck out of every appearance. As Pedro, the de-facto leader of the dirty, dirty muleteers, the hulky Sam Zeller is effectively menacing. Even MTW's own artistic director (and frequent MTW actor) Steven Glaudini makes a hilarious, scene-stealing cameo as the Barber. Other standout performances also include Kirsche, whose dual roles of "The Duke" and Dr. Carrasco are deliciously scheme-y, and Webb who delivers his role of "The Padre" with one the cast's most pleasant singing voices.

And, finally, in a performance not to be missed, the voracious Margherita attacks the role of Aldonza—and the vocally-demanding songs that accompany it—with such power and ferocious intensity that you forget she's acting, but rather living the part. Her transcendent portrayal is so impressive and gut-wrenchingly raw at times that you hunger for her character to have her own damn musical about her own damn life. Belting and emoting her songs like a peer-less diva extraordinaire, this recent winner of the Ovation Award for Best Actress in a Musical is, to put it simply, jaw-droppingly good.

As a whole, the overall execution of the show is quite exemplary, from its beautiful orchestrations and choreography, to that extraordinary set. While I appreciate the idea of using a vertically-ascending/descending elevator instead of the often-seen drawbridge device in previous productions, the achingly-snaillike showpiece unexpectedly proved to be an almost awkward, laughable distraction, forcing the actors to keep reacting to it long after the scene has reached its pinnacle. But, really, in its quest (ha ha) to present a fresh, interesting, creative approach to a classic, MTW's enjoyable revival of MAN OF LA MANCHA is an excellent must-see, whether this is your first or your umpteenth viewing of the show. And the world... will be better for this.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos by Ken Jacques Photography. Top: Don Quixote (Davis Gaines). Bottom: Aldonza (Lesli Margherita).

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Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's MAN OF LA MANCHA continue through this Sunday, February 26 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $20. There is a $3 service charge per ticket. Prices are subject to change without notice. Group rates are available for 15 or more.

Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA.

For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.



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From This Author Michael L. Quintos