Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Staging Intensifies Dramatic Impact of Man of La Mancha
The stage has been built as far forward as possible into the auditorium in a gentle arc paralleling the arc of the seating area. Along with other elements of staging and lighting, this configuration is used to create an intimacy for the viewer with the prisoners in the common room of the prison of the city of Seville in late 16th century Spain.
Here playwright-actor Miguel de Cervantes, who has been arrested for attempting to collect from the Church while employed as tax collector, is being held with a collection of murderers and thieves. In the hope of convincing them to return to him a prized possession which was among those that they had taken from him, Cervantes enacts for his fellow prisoners a story that he has written. The story tells of Alonso Quijana, a failing, deluded old man. Imagining himself to be Don Quixote, a noble knight, Quijana journeys into the country side with his companion Sancho Panza, whom he fancies to be his squire, in search of evildoers to defeat. They seek shelter at an inn which Quijana misperceives as a palace, and wherein they meet Aldonza, a serving girl cum prostitute whom Quijana misperceives as a high born lady.
The effect of the intimate staging is that we feel that we are sitting in a circle among the prisoners, made intimate to Cervantes' story by its re-enactment by him and the company which he has recruited from among the thieves and murderers surrounding him. The quietly intense, non operetta-like storytelling is presented with a hushed sincerity that obliterates a perceived hokeyness that has distanced some of us from Man of La Mancha in the past, even as we have enjoyed its always considerable pleasures.
Until I grasped the altered landscape, I wondered where Bonnie J. Monte was taking us when Jane Pfitsch portraying Aldonza launched into her first song, "It's All The Same," speaking the opening lyric ("One pair of arms is like another ..."), delivering a couple of lyrics later in the song similarly, and eschewing orotund operatic notes. However, it shortly became apparent that, in eschewing a musically "grand" approach to Aldonza, Pfitsch and director Monte have brought a new consistency to La Mancha's depiction of the degraded and abused "Aldonza, the whore."
Right from the start, theatre and concert hall baritone William Michals owns the house with his powerful and mellifluous, throw all caution to the wind vocalization of "Man of La Mancha ("I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha") as his Cervantes transforms himself and his servant into Quixote and his loyal squire Sancho Panza, and ride into the countryside on horses depicted by their fellow prisoners. Known for his voice, Michals' interpretation of character and dialogue is even more impressive. There is an unfussy, intelligent seriousness to his Cervantes, and the pace and rhythm of his narration draws us into the story circle. Although most audiences will likely focus on his rousing "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)." Michals' version of this sure-fire crowd pleaser will disappoint no one.
The strong, excellent ensemble blends seamlessly. Patrick Boll is riveting as Dr. Carrasco (the fiancé of Quijana's niece), who takes an inhumane pleasure in destroying dreams. Blake Pfeil, a likeable, easygoing Sancho, jettisons the comic sidekick Sancho of the original production. Darren Matthias, Drew Dix and Jeremy Lee Parrish bring the ballast of richly colored performances in major featured roles.
The scenic design by Michael Schweikardt and lighting design by Michael Giannitti create striking visual interest among its myriad elements (banks of candles, trap doors, stairways, etc.), preserve the sense of an underground prison without bathing the stage in excessive darkness, and provide the angles, playing spaces and sight lines which are essential to the creation of the intimate mood of the entire production.
Doug Oberhamer conducts the ten-piece orchestra flawlessly. The arrangements are played with a soulful intensity which makes the music completely integral with the script.
Man of La Mancha itself is an inspiring example of an impossible dream coming true. Composer Mitch Leigh's second longest running musical was Sarava. Lyricist Joe Darion's second longest running musical was Illya, Darling. Book writer Dale Wasserman never wrote another musical.
This is an especially rewarding Man of La Mancha
Man of La Mancha has been extended through November 25 (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 7:30 pm/ Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2 pm) at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Man of La Mancha Written by Dale Wasserman; Music by Mitch Leigh; Lyrics by Joe Darien; directed by Bonnie J. Monte