Review: Man of La Mancha. Book by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. Produced by the 5th Avenue Theatre. Directed by Allison Narver. Choreographed by Maria Torres. Music Direction by Cynthia Kortman Westphal. Scenic Design by Matthew Smucker. Costume Design by Harmony Arnold. Lighting Design by L.B. Morse. Sound Design by Christopher Walker. Cast includes Rufus Bonds Jr., Nova Y. Payton, Don Darryl Rivera, Eric Ankrim, Marlette Buchanan, Nick DeSantis, Lauren Du Pree, Allen Fitzpatrick, Jose J. Gonzales, Brandon O’Neill, and David Quicksall. Now through October 30, 2016 at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Some musical theater aficionados sneer that the 1964 musical MAN OF LA MANCHA (currently on stage at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre) with a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh is a “one song hit” from a trio of creators who only had one hit Broadway show. That’s not entirely fair to librettist Wasserman who also scored success with his theatrical adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1963, but it is sadly true for Darion and Leigh who both failed to create another success like “La Mancha” which ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards and entered the pantheon of great Broadway musicals.
But, those nasty snide queens like to snipe that “La Mancha” was a hit largely due to the huge success of its “big” song “The Impossible Dream” which became a standard and was recorded by dozens of other artists. That’s not really a fair challenge either; “La Mancha” does have a couple clunky songs (frankly, all of Sancho’s comic songs are a bit tiresome in my opinion) but “Dulcinea” and the title song “Man of La Mancha” are worthy in their own right and overall, the show has a lovely score. Yes, the libretto does seem a tad out of style, if not a bit “clunky” by modern standards…frankly, it could use an overall. But, Wasserman’s overall structure for “La Mancha” is sound and he really did solve the problem of how to adapt Cervantes’ sprawling and very episodic 17th Century darkly comic masterpiece. It is a greatly simplified (dumbed down according to fans of Cervantes) adaptation but it does contain the heart and soul of “Quixote”.
For those of you needing a synopsis, “La Mancha” is actually a play within a play. The musical opens with the actual writer of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes himself, being thrown into prison on the command of the Spanish Inquisition. There, the other prisoners threaten to strip him of all his belongings including the unpublished manuscript of Don Quixote. Cervantes suggests he be put on trial by his fellow prisoners and his performance of the novel will serve as his defense; if the jury dislikes the story, they can do what they like with the manuscript. Cervantes, with the aid of his man servant and the prisoners themselves begins to tell the story of Don Quixote, with Cervantes himself playing the main role.
But, there’s yet another layer to the tale since “Don Quixote” himself, is a figment of an addled imagination…Kindly older gentleman Alonso Quijano is in the twilight of his years and now imagines himself to be a great Knight named Don Quixote. With his trusty servant/squire Sancho Panza he embarks on a series of misadventures that includes fighting windmills (Quixote thinks they are dragons) and defending the honor of a lovely lady-in-waiting Dulcinea, who’s actually nothing more than a serving wench/prostitute really named Aldonza working in a grubby inn. Eventually, Quixote/Quijano’s family “rescues” the old man, but his heart is broken and he takes to his deathbed having failed to achieve his “Impossible Dream”. Only the arrival of Aldonza to his side and her insistence that she really is his “Dulcinea” rallies the old man long enough to die with a smile on his face. This story moves the prisoners in Cervantes’ prison to proclaim he won “his case” and they break into the 32nd reprise of “THAT SONG” as Cervantes is led off to face the Inquisition. Cue tears and standing ovation.
Of course, it’s all false. Cervantes did not face the Inquisition (though he did get into some trouble with the Spanish government for being a bad tax collector) and there was no apparent threat to the publication of “Quixote” which was a huge success for Cervantes. And, the plot for Man of La Mancha is greatly reduced from the original sprawling work. In reality, it’s “Quixote-Lite”. That said, it’s still an older show with its charms…some lovely music and a clever book that could use a bit of updating.
The 5th Avenue’s new production of Man of La Mancha does try to refresh the old classic with an interesting mise-en-scène created by director Allison Narver and her design/production team. This “La Mancha” places its outer story, ie “Cervantes in prison relaying the tale of Don Quixote” into a modern 21st century setting instead of its usual 17th century one. The show opens on one huge unit set, a terrifyingly modern and brutal looking prison populated by 21st century characters. Framing the story in this modern context certainly opens up the material to fresher contemplation as well as giving the design team something fresh to deal with. And, this modernistic take on “La Mancha” certainly offers up interesting parallels to events happening in the world today. It’s no accident that this prison might just recall the feeling/look of more contemporary institutions like Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.
That said, from a design perspective this Man of La Mancha is pretty stunning with superior work from scenic designer Matthew Smucker, costume designer Harmony Arnold, lighting designer L.B. Morse and sound designer Christopher Walker. This show looks and sounds exceptional…especially “sounds” since the 5th Avenue is debuting their brand new sound system with this production and the muddy mushy acoustics of the old 5th Avenue sound system are gone and replaced by audio clarity and crispness. Hurrah for that! (I’d almost sit through another production of famed mushmouthed tiny tot musical Matilda with this new system…almost.)
But, while the physical aspects of this “La Mancha’s” design are top notch, I can’t quite get behind this production as a whole. While I like Ms Narver’s choices as to how she sets this production, there are some odd moments of awkward blocking onstage at times. Or, maybe it was just a case of actors not being in the right place…I don’t know but there are a couple clunky moments in this production. And, while the fellow prisoners initially begin to enact the play within the musical with uncertainty, it quickly just becomes actors rushing about from one scene to the another. We lose that sense of them “putting on a show” with the elements they have at hand in their prison.
The other fresh take on this “La Mancha” is the diverse casting; this isn’t your grandma’s “whiter than thou” production of Man of La Mancha (which takes place in Spain which definitely isn’t in Northern Europe…) Overall, this cast is strong and highly talented and the dancing is superb with great choreography from Maria Torres. I actually enjoyed the ensemble more than the performances of the main principle speaking roles though as usual 5th Avenue stalwarts like Allen Fitzpatrick, Brandon O’Neill, and Nick DeSantis are exceptionally good in their roles. Jose Gonzales was very funny as the Barber and Don Darryl Rivera’s Sancho was a crowd pleaser, though personally I think the role (not the actor) tries too hard to be comic relief.
Nova Payton, the exceptional East Coast based actress who wowed us earlier this year in the 5th Avenue’s A Night With Janis Joplin plays Aldonza/Dulcinea and she’s a huge asset here with her big voice but also with her fine acting. She’s an emotionally compelling and strongly sympathetic Aldonza.
As for leading man, Rufus Bonds Jr. he had the difficult task of being last minute casting to fill in for Broadway veteran Norm Lewis who was originally scheduled to play Quixote/Cervantes but bowed out just as rehearsals began for mysterious “he had a prior commitment to honor” reasons. Mr. Bonds also has considerable Broadway experience including stints in Rent and Parade and he recently played Porgy in Porgy and Bess in London but he’s never quite reached leading man/star status on Broadway (like Tony Award nominated/prior committed Mr. Lewis). That’s not to say you need a Tony nomination to play this role, (you don’t…co-star Brandon O’Neill or several other local actors could have easily played this role) but Quixote/Cervantes really needs to be played by an actor with lots of bravado, charisma and a certain degree of passion and I’m afraid Mr. Bonds didn’t quite bring those elements to this role this time. He’s too low key and low energy and vocally, he seemed to be lacking much power. Judging by the fact he seemed to have some breath control issues, I would hazard a guess Mr. Bonds might be suffering from a cold/allergies/Seattle’s murky fall weather. I’ve been told that his performance on Sunday (the 16th) was stronger and more assured than the opening night performance I saw on Thursday the 13th. I hope that is the case. He’s a likeable actor and I’d like to see him in different kinds of roles.
It’s a hard call for me, for this production of Man of La Mancha. There are many elements I liked very much and other elements that didn’t quite work for me. Overall, there are some odd issues with pacing and energy levels which was reflected in the audience on opening night…lots of seat fidgeting, coughing and rustling. Part of the issue might be the fact “La Mancha” is done in one longish two hour act. The audience might actually need a break in there to digest the material. Despite some fine performances, gorgeous design, interesting directorial choices and that beautiful new sound system, I can’t overwhelmingly endorse (or condemn) this “La Mancha”. If I sunk to the low of grading theater, I’d give certain things an “A” and others a “B” and yet others a “C”….if we grade on a curve, I’d be generous and give it a “B” overall but since I hate doing corny theater review things like that, I’ll just suggest you decide for yourself, O’ Faithful Reader…
(Insert winky face)