Man of La Mancha Written by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. Directed by Jonathan Kent. Choreographed by Luis Perez. Scenic and costume design by Paul Brown. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Sound design by Tony Meola. Music director Robert Billig. Original dance music by Neil Warner. Original orchestrations by Music Makers, Inc. Music coordinator Michael Keller. New dance music by David Krane. New dance orchestrations by Brian Besterman. Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Ernie Sabella. Also starring Mark Jacoby, Stephen Bogardus, Don Mayo, Bradley Dean, Natascia Diaz, Olga Merediz, Frederick B. Owens, Jamie Torcellini. Featuring Timothy J. Alex, Andy Blankenbuehler, John Herrera, Jamie Karen, Lorin Latarro, Carlos Lopez, Wilson Mendieta, Gregory Mitchell, Richard Montoya, Michelle Rios, Thom Sesma, Jimmy Smagula, Dennis Stowe, Allyson Tucker.
In any assessment of Man of La Mancha, it's impossible to avoid an examination of the story's primary concern: the real versus the fantastic. But while many productions see fit to limit their exploration of these issues to the story of Miguel de Cervantes and his great fictional creation Don Quixote, the new revival of the 1965 musical at the Martin Beck adds an additional level: The director hasn't decided what's real or fantastic. The result is a show that comes depressingly close to neither.
Director Jonathan Kent has managed to take a straightforward musical with a nearly perfect book (by Dale Wasserman) and score (by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion), a show where its concept and script are indistinguishable, and embellish it to a point where its essential core meaning is completely buried beneath a mammoth set and countless unnecessary physical trappings. No small achievement, this.
Paul Brown's set is striking at first glance, an impressive construction of metal and wood, pipes and ropes, stairs and platforms. The set is meant to represent the common area of a Spanish prison where prisoners wait to appear before the Spanish Inquisition, and it's acceptable until about half of the upstage wall begins to rotate to create one giant staircase, utilizing what can only be considered astounding technology for 1594. Past the opening scene, Kent and Brown forget that the set is supposed to be a prison at all - actors can and do move anywhere at any time with little restriction, possessing a surprising amount of freedom and control of their surroundings.
But most of the problems Kent and Brown encounter are in their attempts to answer one vital question, around which everything else hinges: Where is the play-within-the-play set? As Cervantes (Brian Stokes Mitchell) is enacting a charade for his fellow prisoners as his defense in a de facto trial that threatens to rob him of his possessions, is the Quixote story enacted by the other prisoners or entirely in Cervantes's mind?
Coming away from the production, it's difficult to discern their position on this issue. The upstage wall of Brown's set is occasionally used as a panoramic dreamscape which splits in half to reveal a row of sunflowers, a row of candles, a sun, a moon, or in the final coup de theatre, nothing at all. This - along with a fully grown tree or a bed rising from the floor - suggests complete fantasy. Yet, when the Padre (Mark Jacoby) hears confession, he sits inside the prop trunk brought on with Mitchell at the start of the show.
Worse is the star entrance given Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who plays the vivacious and tortured Aldonza. The journey of Aldonza from a "kitchen slut reeking with sweat" to the Dulcinea so worthy of glory as Quixote sees it is traditionally mirrored in the reclusive, scared prisoner Cervantes pulls out of the shadows to be the centerpiece of his tale. This is completely absent in Kent's conception, and even if Mastrantonio were a bit more exciting and enticing in the role, she would still have no clear character, no way to build to the redemption depicted in the show's triumphant choral finale, one of the most moving in musical theatre history.
In short, Kent doesn't know how he wishes to tell the story, so the story doesn't really get told. This production even goes so far as to rework the show's signature song, "The Impossible Dream," a showstopping anthem in and of itself, into the most dishonest, applause-grabbing moment of them all. Mitchell starts singing the song to Mastrantonio in character as Quixote, delineating his philosophy of life, but has moved downstage near the end of the song, delivering it more to the audience than anyone else.
Even antics this ridiculous cannot gut Man of La Mancha entirely; the book and score are too good for that. When the material is allowed to take over, the show is almost as rapturously emotional as it's supposed to be. The lyrical book scenes are melodic and move without patronizing. And what a score - everyone knows "The Impossible Dream," but everyone should know the others, too - to a song, the music is tuneful and bursting with character and Spanish flavor. Thankfully, the show's original orchestrations from Music Makers, Inc. are well respected, and the only significant changes to the score are the deletion of the show's overture, one of the grandest in the musical theatre canon, and some new (and unnecessary) dance music. Though Robert Billig, the show's musical director, could pick up the tempos a bit, his work, on the whole, is exemplary.
Mitchell leads the cast strongly, giving one of his most effective and honest musical performances to date. He creatively blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, and gives a vocal performance of significant color and depth that can't match the role's originator, Richard Kiley, but thrill as much as anything in this production can be expected to do. Stephen Bogardus does well playing both Cervantes's prison prosecutor and Quixote's logical nemesis, while Jacoby injects his Padre's lines with a light comic touch and his songs with supple emotion. Frederick B. Owens's Captain of the Inquisition is significantly threatening, as is Don Mayo's governor in the prison, though he is more amiable as the Innkeeper Quixote perceives as a lord.
Other performers are more problematic: The male chorus of muleteers in Cervantes's tale, though apt singers and dancers (though saddled with Luis Perez's unimaginative choreography), predictably look and move like exquisitely trained Broadway gypsies instead of rough-bred outdoorsmen. More unfortunate still is Ernie Sabella as Sancho, who misses nearly all his comic opportunities and has little chemistry with Mitchell. Mastrantonio isn't quite lowdown enough for her Aldonza to be effective, but as her role has been reconceived into confusion, it's not all her fault.
No, the blame for that - like so many of the production's problems, must fall on Kent. Still, amazingly, his production overall is a fine expression of the message of Man of La Mancha. In approaching this revival, one must look past the messy outer shell of this production to locate the true soul of the passionate and moving Man of La Mancha Wasserman, Leigh, and Darion wrote beneath.