BWW Review: Mad Theatre of Tampa's Production of MAN OF LA MANCHA at the Shimberg Playhouse
It's safe to say that "The Impossible Dream," MAN OF LA MANCHA'S signature number, is one of the greatest songs in musical theatre history. Its main competition for the top slot would be "Anything Goes," "Cabaret" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses." In my personal list of the greatest musical theatre songs, "The Impossible Dream" ranks at an incredibly high #2. But after hearing Marcus Blake's take on the iconic song in the current Mad Theatre production of MAN OF LA MANCHA, I may have to change my tune. Maybe now "The Impossible Dream" should actually top that coveted list. The talented Mr. Blake's rendition stirred the soul and melted the heart. The audience rewarded him with an ovation that is one of the longest I have experienced in recent memory. It was a stunning moment, the crowd not wanting to stop clapping for a job well done, and I wish the entire show matched the highs of this instant.
This production of MAN OF LA MANCHA has much to offer, but there also seemed to be numerous missed opportunities. The pace seemed off, and oftentimes I felt that Don Quixote's quest lacked zest.
The musical, first performed in 1965 with Richard Kiley in the lead, is a community theatre staple. In some ways, it seemed too ordinary, perhaps too overdone, for the risk-taking Mad Theatre. (Assassins and Toxic Avenger, both scheduled for Mad's upcoming season, seem more in line with their cutting-edge sensibilities.) With a nine-person cast (most of whom play a myriad of roles), this is a serious, rather straight-forward version of MAN OF LA MANCHA, and I just wish it turned out to be more inventive, more Mad-ized (if such a word exists). There are moments of glory, but the production seemed rather tame, where the stakes could have been raised and the audience could have been whisked away on a true journey of discovery. Instead, the story was told; there were no major mishaps; and we got to experience a decent version of this powerful piece. It's fine, but audiences deserve more from the ground-breaking Mad Theatre.
MAN OF LA MANCHA, (music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion, and book by Dale Wasserman) is oftentimes wrongly regarded as just a musical version of Don Quixote. It's actually a play within a play as performed by Miguel de Cervantes as he sits in prison, awaiting the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. The world's most famous windmill-chasing knight, Don Quixote, comes to life in the stories Cervantes acts out for his fellow prisoners.
In the MAD version, this early prison scene seemed interminable. We needed to feel a threat of some kind, or even feel like we were in a prison, but it was all rather slow going. Cervantes' first big song, "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)," when he puts on his facial hair and fake eyebrows, should be a revelatory moment--chill-inducing. Here, it just did not work; you could not tell that a transformation took place--the character went from A to A. And it took Mr. Blake a seeming eternity to dab the spirit gum on his face to get there. (Imagine "A Little More Mascara" from La Cage Aux Folles where it takes the majority of the show for Albin to get that mascara on, and you'll understand what it's like here.) Once Mr. Blake's mustache and eyebrows were set, the song, though vocally well-sung, didn't take us to the next level. I have seen versions of this stellar number when I wanted to jump out of my seat in the excitement of the moment. It should be that thrilling.
With his rich, deep voice, Mr. Blake grew on me as the show went on, however, and I found myself rooting for his character. He's very sturdy in the part, stoic, and his "Impossible Dream" is, as previously noted, off the charts. I just wish his acting matched his impressive vocal chops.
The likable Kaitlyn Rosen plays Sancho Panza, the comic relief, and I think it's great that a female is tackling this part. She looks like a mustachioed hippy here--a relic from Haight-Ashbury. Watching her, I felt she resembled a very stoned David Crosby traipsing through La Mancha. I just wish the performance ultimately paid off. I once saw a production in New Port Richey where Sancho was played all-too-seriously, like he was reciting Ibsen, and it was all wrong. Sancho is made for laughs. Ms. Rosen gives it her all, but she seems to be straining for laughs rather than letting them come naturally; she pushes too hard, forcing the humor, instead of just being the lovable, funny sidekick.
In the other key role, Aldonza, Jessica Roe Vitalo is quite a find. She's a burst of energy, owning the stage. She sings well, but I found her rather one-note at times. Her big Act 2 number, "Aldonza," starts at level 10 out of 10 and has nowhere to go. We miss the layers, the moments of vulnerability, necessary to the song and to the part. (The make-up design of her bruises after a sexual assault are quite well done; I especially like the details, such as the bruised fingerprints on her arms.) She's a commanding presence onstage, though, and a welcome new face to our local theatre scene.
The towering Richard Brown really gets to show off his stunning vocal work as well as his versatility in numerous parts, including an innkeeper and a priest. Thomas Brown is also quite strong in his onstage moments (his voice as the Knight of the Mirrors, with the help of an echo chamber sound effect, was particularly eerie). Lindsay MacConnell is outstanding in her laudable "The Moorish Dance," even though her vocals were all over the place at times. (This bravura dance number was well-choreographed by Jessica Moraton, who is also a very strong performer in a variety of roles throughout the show.) Adriana Falcon is also memorable with an evil-eye gaze that can kill; I recall her as a standout in Carrollwood Players' Lie, Cheat & Genuflect, and she's quite good here. I appreciate that these actors are always in the moment, always reacting to the action happening around them, even when they are not central to the scene.
My favorite song from the show, the lovely "I'm Only Thinking of Him," is beautifully rendered by Falcon, the always impressive Moraton, and the remarkable Richard Brown. Although there is no real staging in the scene (the two women sit while the priest stands behind them), the simplicity is quite effective. Leaving the theatre, this is the song that was stuck in my head on my ride home.
My choice for best in the cast goes to an eyepatch-donning Diego Rosado. With his long hair and scruffy looks, somewhere between a pirate and a Manson family member, he's so full of energy in whatever part he plays, so full of life, that I wanted to see a musical focused on one of his various characters. He's terrific. Whenever he was onstage, you could feel the energy of the rest of the cast move up a notch.
First-time director Melissa Doell has done an admirable job; she has much potential with a keen eye. But she needs to work on a show's pacing and the actors' connection with one another, especially the leads. There were also several times when there was a sameness to the blocking--such as someone standing on a table and the cast circling them like a frantic game of Musical Chairs. This may work in a high school show (or at least the show of a non-performing arts high school), but more variation is needed, more invention. But that aside, it's still a worthy directorial debut.
Dwayne A. Cline's set was serviceable, though I was not a fan of the fake grade-school-art-class fire. Also, I'm still trying to figure out what to make with the horse heads on a stick; it was like something out of Monty Python and seemed jarring. Deb Lastinger's costumes were fine, but Sancho's shoes did not work for the beloved sidekick.
It's a treat whenever an orchestra is onstage during a show, and I was glad to see that that was the case here. Conductor and pianist Tim Flores led the dynamic music group, featuring Nicholas Remy on drums, Alejandro Rowinsky on guitar, Derek Blankeship on trumpet, Julia Ford on reeds, and Alex Pasut on bass. I like how they were dressed as prisoners (all except for one, who wore a t-shirt and should have been in prisoner garb as well).
MAN OF LA MANCHA is adored by audiences, and it earned a standing ovation on the night I saw it. The audience would have given Marcus Blake a standing ovation as well after his "The Impossible Dream," if they could. Any of my reservations come because I hold Mad Theatre to very high standards. They and Eight O'Clock Theatre are the top community theatres in the area, but I look at them as more than that. I treat them the way I treat professional companies. Even though the actors aren't getting paid, we expect top-grade performances from everyone. It's a huge compliment when you think about it--that I expect so much from a community theatre that usually goes above and beyond the typical theatre fare out there, that usually dares to dream that impossible dream.
MAN OF LA MANCHA plays at the Shimberg Playhouse in the Straz Center thru June 23rd. Get your tickets now, because it's almost completely sold out.
Photo credit: Chaz D Photography