Regional Reviews: Chicago
Man of La Mancha
In Theo Ubique's production of the 1965 musical classic, the scenes in the prison in which accused heretics of the Spanish Inquisition are held prisoner are played in modern dress and set in an asylum of dull lime green tiles in the set designed by Kyle Land. Ms. Brothers plays a woman who believes herself to be Cervantes, and as in the traditional staging of the musical, brings a text of "Don Quixote" and a trunk full of costumes and props with her into confinement. Her fellow inmate/patients humor her though they refer sarcastically to her as a "man" and conduct a trial of this "Cervantes" in which a guilty verdict will result in the burning of her manuscript. After "Cervantes" convinces the patients to aid in her defense by playing the characters in her story, we have a pretext for accepting any sort of gender-bent casting in the "Quixote" story within the musical. Not only is Quixote played by a woman, but the barber is as well while the housekeeper is played by a man.
This elaborate rethinking of bookwriter Dale Wasserman's framing device makes plausible the casting of a woman in a role written for a man. That said, was it a good creative choice? The answer is a split decision. Ms. Brothers acts the role of Cervantes beautifully and touchingly, with a grace and empathy that makes Cervantes' humanity and Quixote's idealism quite real. She plays the role with a sort of unisex demeanor that neither denies her gender nor imitates masculine mannerisms. Brothers' great skill as an actor is on display and she gives a fresh look at this classic character.
However, Cervantes/Quixote is one of the great baritone roles of musical theatre, and Ms. Brothers is no baritone. She does hit all the notes even the lowest ones - and it sounded to my ear like she and music director Ethan Deppe did not transpose the score up to better suit Brother's range. Her singing is thin at the low end and seems uncomfortable throughout. Ironically, the suspense of hearing a singer approach the high notes of song, wondering of they'll hit them and feeling relief and awe when they do, is totally lost as the high notes are the ones she hits most easily and with greatest confidence. Remembering the show's signature song, "The Impossible Dream," sung by powerful baritones like Richard Kiley, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Robert Goulet, there's a definite trade off in hearing it performed by a woman who, through no fault of her own, is simply not built to deliver notes in that range. It may have worked better if the company had transposed the songs to a higher key for Ms. Brothers Linda Eder has sung both "The Impossible Dream" and the title song quite powerfully in that manner.
The concept of setting the action in a mental hospital otherwise works, for the most part. Wasserman, after all, adapted Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for the stage, and his concern with the fine line between what's called sanity and insanity is present in Man of La Mancha as well. There are some tradeoffs, though. Transforming Cervantes to a woman who believes she's Cervantes distances us from the real writer and compromises the emotional reaction we might have to his story. It also makes the threat of the "prisoners" to burn the manuscript less powerful, since we know it's not the only copy and is not really the work of the person claiming to be Cervantes.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong and well guided by director Heimann. Sarah Hayes is a tough and tragic Aldonza, though she looks far more upscale than her scullery maid and prostitute character ought to. Her singing is thin in certain parts of the substantial vocal range her part requires, but she finishes strong in the show's final scenes. Anthony John Lawrence Apodaca gives a fresh take on Sancho Panza comical, but not buffoonish more aware of Quixote's insanity but tolerant of it. Kent Joseph is a particularly menacing Pedro and his rape of Aldonza with the participation of the other muleteers is truly harrowing. Tom Moore has a convincing air of authority as The Duke and Dr. Carrasco, while Daniel Waters displays gorgeous vocals on "To Each His Dulcinea." Trisha Hart Ditsworth handles the brief comic role of the Barber nicely while Maggie Portman shines as Quixote's niece Antonia.
This is a solid, mostly well-sung production that provides a fresh take on the classic, even if that take would be unnecessary other than to support the casting of a woman in the lead male role. Musically, that casting choice plus the sometimes thin accompaniment from the four-piece orchestra, make for a not entirely satisfying performance of Mitch Leigh's music, one of the best Broadway scores of the '60s. The story of Don Quixote is, of course, a classic and the rich characterizations of this production are to be valued. Even so, the score is as important to the piece, and the disadvantages in its performance here are disappointing. Still, Danielle Brothers is a local treasure who deserves much recognition in the Chicago theater scene. I would encourage anyone unfamiliar with her work to check it out here.
Man of La Mancha will be performed Thursdays through Sundays through December 20, 2009 at the No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. Tickets for "Man of La Mancha" are available online at www.theoubique.org or through the ticket order line at 800-595-4849. Theo Ubique's ticket information line is 773-347-1109. A show/dinner package is optional and starts one hour prior to curtain. Free parking is available at the parking lot on the corner of Morse and Ravenswood with free transport on the Lifeline shuttle van to and from the lot.