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BWW REVIEWS: Stratford Festival's Man of La Mancha is the Perfect Escape

The theme this season at the Stratford Festival is Madness: Minds Pushed to the Edge and when it comes to choosing a musical to fit this theme, there is quite possibly no better choice than MAN OF LA MANCHA.

MAN OF LA MANCHA; written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion, is the story within a story of Don Miguel De Cervantes-the author of the popular novel Don Quixote. This production, starring TOM ROONEY in the lead; is directed by ROBERT MCQUEEN.

We first meet Cervantes, and his servant/squire Sancho Panza, played by the always-fantastic STEVE ROSS, as they are being led into 'the dungeon'--a prison full of thieves and murderers who have nothing better to do than to wait for a new guest for them to rough up and rob. As another form of entertainment, this collection of prisoners, led by SHANE CARTY as 'The Governor' also like to hold a mock trial of their own for each new person to pass through the doors. This proves to be an opportunity for Cervantes, who, as his defense, transforms the dungeon into a stage, and his fellow inmates into performers in order to tell bring his play to life. His play is the story of Alonzo Quihana, a man driven mad by the devastation of his real life, who strives for something better in his new found identity of Don Quixote, an errant knight. With his faithful squire by his side, Don Quixote sets on on his quest to, as the song says, 'Dream the Impossible Dream'. On this quest, he sees monsters where there are windmills, he sees a castle where there is just an inn, and he sees beauty and purity in a woman who has never once seen those things in herself.

As Don Quixote's family tries, not so selflessly, to bring him back to their reality, and as the people around him start to appreciate the strength, nobility, and sense of fun that come with his endless imagination and undying hope, Cervantes awaits his own harsh reality: the Spanish Inquisition. MCQUEEN'S direction does an excellent job of having the actors transition from their role within the prison, to their role within a role, and back again, without any confusion to the audience. The actors all do an excellent job of making each of these characters interesting; all clearly with an untold story of their own.

TOM ROONEY portrays Cervantes as an introspective, yet strong-willed writer/performer who has seen much hardship, but who holds onto hope for something better. He initially brings his play to life as a way to try to save his life and salvage his manuscript, but in the end, what he does is much more of a gift to his 'dungeon actors', giving them something meaningful to escape into, and something to hope for again-no doubt staving off their own descent into madness! As Don Quixote, ROONEY is passionate and funny. He had the audience in hysterics on many occasions, but he also had them in tears. His rendition of "The Impossible Dream" brought the house down, and was by far the most powerful moment in the show.

As a side note, I have always felt that 'The Impossible Dream' (The Quest) would be the more appropriate place for the intermission, as opposed to the dark rape scene that closes out the first act. That said, arguments can be made for both, and the end of the first Act certainly sets a clear tone for where we find the character Aldonza in Act 2.

A lot happens to Aldonza throughout the course of the show. We meet her as a server at the Inn who often resorts to prostitution to pay the bills; we see her writhe in fury as Don Quixote repeatedly refers to her as the lady Dulcinea, and we see her start to come around to this idea that she could be the kind of person that he sees her as, only to face the horrific realities of her current existance and fall once again into despair. I have always felt that the way the show is written makes her positive transformation at the end seem rather drastic and abrupt...but despite that, ROBIN HUTTON makes the character honest and believable. The level of physical and vocal athleticism that is required for this role must be a daunting task. Props to Ms. Hutton for delivering! It is also impressive that she does not shy away from portraying Aldonza's rough edges, sometimes singing lines with the exasperation and ferocity that the character is feeling in the moment. This allows for great contrast with her angelic sounding 'Dulcinea' and 'The Impossible Dream' reprises at the end.

The cast is very strong. The ensemble portays the prisoners who are all to eager to participate in something new and exciting, and who take on the roles of rough men, selfish family, and gypsy thieves in Cervantes' play with a scary sort of ease. MARC KIMELMAN'S choreography and JOHN STEAD'S fight direction help to flesh out these characters and this world. SEAN ALEXANDER HAUK is a standout as the Padre, and SHAWN WRIGHT is great as the love-to-hate-him kind of villain needed for the roles of Duke/Dr. Carrasco/Enchanter. KAYLA JAMES and MONIQUE LUND bring on the laughs as Alonzo's neice and housekeeper who are 'Only Thinking of Him', and I must give a shout out to MATTHEW ARMET, whose character Anselmo was fun to watch throughout the show. I wanted to know more about this mysterious and sensitive soul among cruel thievish characters, who tries to defend Aldonza and who begins the song "Little Bird" with a beautiful solo, before the meaning of the song is quickly blemished by others with much worse intentions.

Structurally, this show has always been somewhat odd. There is a strange combination of both darkness and overt sentimentality, and near the end of the show, the writing seems almost rushed, with the character of Aldonza deciding to embrace the identity of Dulcinea, and fighting to help Alonzo remember his quest. One reason for her quick about-face might be that this is the part of the story that Cervantes had not yet written, and is making up as he goes along--knowing full well that he will be fetched for the inquisition at any moment. So in a sense, this unrealistic time crunch in the Don Quixote story, actually makes the Cervantes part of the play more realistic.

This musical is certainly different structurally and in tone, than most other musicals, but, the more you think of it, it might just be intentional. It's messy, at times rushed, and it strikes several different tones and flavours, both dark and saccharine...but then again, can't one say the same thing about real life? This play is an ode to finding meaning in one's life, to seeking a better tomorrow, to never giving up and to helping others to find joy once again, to appreciate the value of newfound hope and unbridled creativity through dream the impossible dream. MAN OF LA MANCHA is the perfect escape!

MAN OF LA MANCHA is currently playing at the Avon Theatre at Stratford Festival. It runs until October 11th.

Photo Credit: Centre, from left: Steve Ross as Manservent/Sancho Panza, Robin Hutton as Aldonza and Tom Rooney as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote with members of the company in Man of La Mancha. Photo by Michael Cooper.

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From This Author Lauren Gienow