By Karen Isaacs
Settling into my seat at Ivoryton Playhouse to see Man of La Mancha, (which runs through Oct. 2), I realized that it had been a long while since I had seen this musical.
While some shows have had multiple recent revivals – La Cage aux Folles and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying to name a few, the last Broadway revival was 2002 and before that 1992 and 1977. Regional theaters have also been ignoring the show.
Why? Certainly it isn’t due to production costs. It is a one set show without elaborate costumes. The cast is modest in size. Perhaps it is the inspirational tone of the musical that is less appealing in our more cynical times. Or perhaps it is the stark realism of the division between the wealthy and the poor, or the critical look at the Catholic church that we wish to avoid.
While the musical – which has music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darien – combines both inspiration – and some would say sentimentality – it also raises an interesting questions: when do the ends NOT justify the means? Are the dreamers of society simply madmen? Do dreams just discourage action?
The show is a show within a show; the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are imprisoned to await being called by the Inquisition for acts against the Catholic Church. The other prisoners are murderers, robbers, etc. and the Governor of the inmates declares that each new prisoner must stand trial in which he is invariably found guilty and must confiscate all possessions. While Cervantes – a poet and writer – admits his guilt, he still wants to put on a defense by acting out a story. The story is of an old gentleman, Alonso Quijana, who imagines he is Don Quixote, a knight errant out to protect the innocent and right the wrongs of society.
As Cervantes tells the story, Don Quixote and his manservant, now Sancho Panza set out on a quest which leads them to a variety of adventures. Don Quixote sees what he want to see – a windmill is an enemy that he must vanquish, when he loses he says it was a disguise for his enemy, The Enchanter.. An inn is the castle where the lord will be able to properly dub a night; a stable girl/waitress (Aldonza) is his ideal woman – Dulcinea. At the same time the family of the Quijana – his housekeeper, neice and her fiancé are frightened by his transformation and make plans to bring him back to his senses.
He enlists the other prisoners to play various roles. The Governor of the inmates becomes the Innkeeper, and other prisoners become Aldonza, the housekeeper, the niece, the gentleman’s priest, and the fiancé. The roles the prisoners play are often symmetrical with their roles in the prison – the fiancé is the most opposed to permitting Cervantes from telling his story.
During the course of the show, the prisoners not only become caught up in the story of both Quijana and Quixote and begin to aspire to different circumstances which unfortunately are unlikely occur.
When Cervantes is finally called to meet the Inquisition, the prisoners rise to send him off with hope.
Man of La Mancha has an interesting history; the initial idea became a TV live drama in 1959 written by Dale Wasserman and called I, Don Quiote. Wasserman, at the suggestion of the director Walter Marre, turned it into a musical that had a production at Goodspeed in 1965. Joseph Papp of NY Public Theater staged the musical at the ANTA Washington Square Theater (where I first saw it.) It later moved uptown to Broadway.
It is amazing if you don’t know “The Impossible Dream” which becomes an anthem at the end of the show. It is a song of hope and aspiration. But you will probably also recognize “To Each His Dulcinea.” But there is also the brutally honest “Aldoza” and “It’s All the Same” as well as a rape dance plus the manipulative “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” and the comic “A Little Gossip.”
David Pittsinger, who did a fine job as Emile de Becque in Ivoryton’s production of South Pacific last summer, returns as Cervantes/Quixote. He certainly has the voice for the songs which he performs beautifully but his performance is earnest but not truly three dimensional. This is more the case in the first act when he is front and center in the story. Too often he just plants his feet and sings – well but not really acting. In the second act as the other characters become more important, he seems more relaxed and real. Thinking about this, I realized that in South Pacific he is never the only main character.
Talia Thiesfeild gives as really three dimensional portrayal of Adlonza/Dulcinea. Her
rendition of the songs and her acting gives us a woman who slowly begins to realize that more is possible and that she is worth more than she thought. Brian Michael Hoffman plays Cervantes’ servant and Sancho Panza with sly humor and subtlety. He does over play the humor; the role does not require and traditionally has been played as someone without a great voice.
While the entire ensemble is very good, standouts include James Van Treuren as The Governor/Innkeeper who was last seen at Ivoryton as Georges in La Cage aux Folles and David Edwards as fiancé.
Choreographer Todd Underwood effectively balance the rape ballet between the need for it to be obvious and somewhat graphic but also suggestive rather than obvious.
The scenic design by Daniel Nischan recreates the sense of dungeon like prison room and the lighting by Maecus Abbott is good. Tate R. Burmeister has managed the sound design so that lyrics are understandable and the backstage six piece orchestra sounds as though it is right in front of you.
Director David Edwards while overall doing a good job has made a few questionable choices: why does the prisoner who plays priest lisp? Why does the fiancé seem to embody some stereotypical “gay” gestures? And could he have improved Pittsinger’s acting performance in the first act. Too often he simply moves to the front of the stage, plants his feet and sings.
Yet despite my quibbles, if you love Man of La Mancha or if you’ve never seen, you should absolutely see this production.
It is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., through Oct. 2. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or invorytonplayhouse.org.