Our Review of TUTS ‘Man of La Mancha’

2 Mar

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By JOHN DeMERS

In the same way The Crucible funnels 1950s Cold War paranoia through the Salem Witch Trials, Man of La Mancha funnels what I’d have to call 1960s idealism through one of literature’s most enduring and endearing idealists, Don Quixote de la Mancha.  The result, which seems both brief and spare compared to today’s blockbuster musicals from the marketing and merchandizing departments at Disney, is a reminder of what a long way a “little” can actually go.

Man of La Mancha was either the first or second musical I ever saw on Broadway, in November 1970 – yes, that’s 40-plus years ago – and I’m convinced that Fiddler on the Roof was the other. With all the musicals from any era that have disappeared, it intrigues me that the first two I saw (or chose to see, more accurately) are still alive among us. Fiddler lives on as a great movie, of course, as well as the occasional stage revival. La Mancha became a movie too, though a less memorable one, and is now being revived by Theatre Under The Stars at the Hobby Center. Based on two historical periods no longer our own, the Spanish Inquisition and the 1960s, it seems more than current enough to merit our attention.

The original set design’s single bow to majesty was the heavy stairs that are raised or lowered into a dungeon by clanking chains, letting the powers-that-be in Spain (namely, the Inquisition) come and carry off prisoners for interrogation and probable torture. One of these prisoners, on the day we visit the dungeon, is the writer and actor Miguel de Cervantes, who has (we gather) been scribbling away at a thick stack of pages about a “knight errant” named Don Quixote. The  tough, angry and violent prisoners sharing the cell threaten to burn the manuscript that arrives in a trunk unless the “new kid” tells them a story in his defense. Thus, Man of La Mancha’s play-within-a-play is deftly and believably established.

The TUTS production captures perfectly the tragi-comic dynamic of the Don Quixote yarn. The old man is indeed a bit nuts, though today we’d surely have longer, more scientific names for his various dementias. He sees giants when there are only windmills, he pictures a world of honor, sacrifice and glory; and in this tale, most of all, he imagines a virginal model of womanhood where only a strumpet from the streets stands before him. No, you are not Aldonza, my lady. I know you in my heart, and you are… the fair Dulcinea. We, of course, enlightened realists that we are, see only Aldonza.

So, in this dungeon waiting to be interrogated, Cervantes the writer finds inspiration and courage to face his trials in the story of Don Quixote, his own knight errant. And we, who are privileged to watch him find those things, find them also within ourselves. Don Quixote remains one of the quirkiest heroes on one of the quirkiest hero’s journeys in all of Western culture.

Directed with spirit by TUTS artistic director Bruce Lumpkin, the current production hews close to its stark and dramatic forebears, with Cervantes and his fellow prisoners “building” the Quixote narrative from objects they find at hand and, naturally, portraying all the characters. Special kudos go to choreographer Michelle Gaudette, for finding so many ways and places to insert flamenco, since the intense dance style that came to Spain with the Arab conquest remains one of the most “Spanish” things we know this side of paella.

The book by Dale Wasserman – a true and fully realized play, not just a storyline to hang a bunch of songs on – places a huge burden on the actor playing Cervantes/Quixote, since for him it’s most of the way to being a one-man show. Broadway veteran Paul Schoeffler does a fine job with the acting, from middle-aged Cervantes to senile Quixote, and on to the timeless ideals both men come to embody. Schoeffler’s singing voice, however, is solidly placed in the pop repertoire, certainly lacking the heft of Richard Kiley in the original and especially the thunderous operatic bass-baritone of Brian Stokes Mitchell in the most recent big-budget revival.  Composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion gave their man one hell-of-a-song, “The Impossible Dream,” and it takes more than a dramatic bit of pop styling to impale our hearts upon its vision.

Michelle DeJean, an HSPVA grad who later taught at TUTS’ Humphreys School, is a wonderful Aldonza, banging out the strumpet’s sex-charged bookends “It’s All the Same” and “Aldonza” while slowly coming to realize that the pure Dulcinea of the old man’s dreams is indeed the truest self she carries within. Josh Lamon shines as Sancho Panza, Quixote’s comical squire and sometimes-reluctant enabler, as do Tom Alan Robbins as the Innkeeper/Governor , Michael Brian Dunn as the Barber and Laurent Giroux as the Padre. Longtime TUTS standout Michael Tapley makes a solid contribution to the ensemble, along with the cast’s other locals: Ceasar F. Barajas, Danny Dyer, Julia Krohn, Katelyn Johnson and Kristin Warren.

TUTS Photos by Bruce Bennett

TUTS_ManLaMancha

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