BWW Review: Bailey Walman Is Off the Charts Sensational in Gaither High School Theatre's Production of MAN OF LA MANCHA
"Facts are the enemy of truth." --Don Quixote
I have seen several productions of MAN OF LA MANCHA over the years. One had a leading lady so strong that I wanted to re-name the musical Aldonza! or Woman of La Mancha after watching it. Another had a marvelous Don Quixote but a Sancho Panza who didn't realize he was a comedic role (he portrayed Sancho as if he was Biff in Death of a Salesman). But of all of these productions of this classic, the one that had the most heart by far has to be the Gaither High School production that I had the pleasure of watching on its closing night last Friday.
Lightning struck when MAN OF LA MANCHA first opened on Broadway in its Tony Award winning triumph starring Richard Kiley. With music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darian and the book by Dale Wasserman, it has become a staple in both community and professional theatres, but I love it most when high schools attempt to tackle it. One caveat: If they do, they better have a young man who can fill the Kiley-sized shoes of the lead role, or we're in for a long night.
Thankfully Gaither High School has such a young man. His name is Bailey Walman, and you might want to remember that name for future use. His Cervantes/Quixote is powerful, awe-inspiring and a joy to watch. The transformation from Cervantes to the bearded Quixote is one of the spellbinding moments in musical theatre if done right, and Walman carries this moment with aplomb. His rousing "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)" was sensationally stirring, and I knew we were in for a delightful evening of moving entertainment.
Walman is such a sensational Quixote, with a rollicking, deep voice filled with life, that we forgive any enunciation issues when we don't understand everything he says. He is always--ALWAYS--in character. I first saw Walman as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at the Patel a couple of years back. He was a fine singer but he didn't come across as the strong-willed character that has to carry the show on his back. What a difference two years makes! In MAN OF LA MANCHA, he carries this show on his young shoulders, and ably aided by a wonderful ensemble, makes me circle his name and watch for him in the future.
But the show ultimately stops when Walman sings "The Impossible Dream" at the start of Act 2. Here it is, everything we look for in theatre--thrilling, spine-tingling, goose bump-inducing and tear-duct-tugging. As one of musical theatre's most famous songs--up there with "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Anything Goes," "Cabaret" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses"--"The Impossible Dream" can be an impossible vocal hurdle for young performers. The show lives and breathes (or dies if not done right) in this moment. And Walman's brilliant turn here had me reaching for a hanky. I've heard numerous people sing this powerful ode to the dreamers and the warriors--from Jack Jones to Jim Nabors--but Walman captures all of Quixote's power and determination. I sat transfixed, knowing that we are watching a future performer who has it in him to go as far as he wants. It's a moment I won't soon forget, and judging from the sustained applause after his performance of the song, neither will the audience.
Michael Gant makes for a likable Sancho Panza. Donell Torres is a strong stage presence as the Governor/Innkeeper. And the supporting characters and ensemble are quite strong and do a tremendous job here, including Chris Korloch, Shane Tilton, Julia Woolley, Jordan George, Mark Anderson, Brandon Foodrill, Joey Oswald, Alexis McDonald, Bella Davila, Karalynn Kiefer, Shanelle Tavarez, Austin Salavarrieta, Catelynn Adams, and Alexsus Gerardo. Audrey Rey does a standout dance during "To Each His Dulcinea."
I always like secondary songs even more than the more famous anthems (in South Pacific, give me "My Girl Back Home" over "Some Enchanted Evening" any day). In MAN OF LA MANCHA, my favorite song has always been "I'm Only Thinking of Him." It's a tune that gets stuck in my head if I don't look out. In this production it was sung by Isabella Caffee, Michaela Weimer and Sam Ortiz. And although the results were decidedly mixed--the vocals were all over the place, sometimes blatantly pitchy--it still remains my favorite.
Aldonza, played by senior Kya Lockler, has a strong presence onstage and has several strong moments, but she also has some noticeable vocal issues, especially in her early songs.
Aside from Walman, my vote for cast MVP goes to Matt Howard, who proves you don't need to be the lead to own a show. His rendition of "Little Bird, Little Bird" with the Muleteers was nothing short of phenomenal. Here was an actor always in the moment, even when it wasn't his scene, and he stood out without taking away from the other actors. And his singing voice helped steer some of the large group numbers. A junior, Howard is proof that the Gaither High School theatre department is in good hands for next year.
This is director Will Albritton's favorite show, and his love of the material shows in every moment. He has guided a powerful production, with incredible theatrical moments, such as Quixote and Sancho on their horses (the horses created by placing two burlap bags over two of the ensemble members' heads), the Knight of the Mirrors scene, and a clever, no frills way of dealing with the windmill sequence (all you need is a flashlight, a sheet, and four arms). It's a labor of love and it shows.
Andie Fields' lighting was effective and clever, and Melissa Barberan's sound was fine (though some of the microphones were muffled). Oftentimes the actors spoke way too fast, which is a malady found in many high school productions. The choreography by Karalynn Kiefer, Katie Ogden and Michaela Weimer was quite good, never too over the top. The fight choreography in Act 2 was brilliantly realized, and even got worthy applause (only "The Impossible Dream" received a louder ovation).
This MAN OF LA MANCHA provided a fine night of theatre, and it proves that the future is in good hands with these young performers. Every school needs a strong leader to head its Theatre department, and Gaither High is lucky to have Will Albritton, a man with the heart, the vision and the know-how to pull off a production like this. And to have a performer like Bailey Walman in your midst, so that you can produce a show like this, doesn't hurt either. The future is bright for Mr. Walman, a high school senior. With lots of work and lots of luck, he has the ability to make sure that his dreams do not remain impossible.