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Man of La Mancha
Landmark Musicals at Rodey Theatre

Also see Wally's review of Boeing Boeing and Dean's review of Sweeney Todd


Vernon Reza, Jack Nuzum, Doug Montoya and Cast
While I was watching this excellent production of Man of La Mancha, I kept wondering why the book writer, Dale Wasserman, used the framing device of a performance within a performance. Instead of simply presenting scenes taken from Cervantes' novel "Don Quixote," Wasserman contrives to have Cervantes, who is in prison, stage scenes from his uncompleted manuscript, using his fellow prisoners as actors.

It's preposterous, of course, that these prisoners (in a co-ed prison, no less) could play their parts so well without scripts or rehearsals. And that they break into song is even more far-fetched, but if you can get past that, it becomes a wonderful conceit. A little research dug up an interview and speech from the late 1990s in which Wasserman explains why he did it this way.

He had read the novel in 1959 and believed that it was impossible to adapt per se. However, one line in the book gave Wasserman the "in" he needed: A neighbor who has known "Don Quixote" for many years asks him if he does not realize that he (Quixote) is in reality a respectable gentleman named Alonso Quijana. To which Quijana replies: "I know very well who I am, and who I may be if I choose." So Quijana is aware that "Don Quixote" is his own illusion, and he knows what reality is, but which one does he choose? Wasserman then says that "Illusion versus Reality is the basic subject of theater."

So Wasserman's Man of La Mancha was never intended to be merely a straightforward adaptation of a classic of world literature, but also a meditation on theater itself. He has Cervantes, who was also an actor and playwright (of over 30 plays, almost all of which are now forgotten), create his theatrical illusions in his very real prison. At the end of the play, Cervantes says that he is also a Man of La Mancha, which is not biographically true, but he did go to prison, and apparently the prison was in La Mancha, and he supposedly got the idea for his magnum opus while sitting in that prison.

Thus we have Don Quixote, who is a fabrication of Alonso Quijana, who is a fabrication of Miguel de Cervantes. And Landmark Musicals director Paul Ford adds yet another layer of meta to this by having the actors wander out onto the stage during the overture and gradually step into their roles in the prison setting. There is no pretense that they are not actors acting out an illusion. Cervantes thus becomes the fabrication of, in this case, the actor Jack Nuzum and the director Paul Ford. You might think that this would all be a little too Brechtian, but this is a musical, after all, and the songs pull you back emotionally into the action on stage.

The music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion are mostly excellent, with one absolute theater classic, "The Impossible Dream", that a lot of people can sing from memory. However, poor Sancho Panza. His two solos seem to have dropped in from a different universe entirely. (That other universe might be where Leigh and Darion disappeared to after this show, since neither one had any other hits.)

Jack Nuzum and everyone else in the cast of sixteen do fine work. Really, there was not a single faltering among the actors; they all deserve praise, but I'll only mention the three principals. Nuzum looks the part, acts very well, and has the stage presence and a voice good enough to pull off his big number with ease. Vernon Reza even more looks the part as Sancho Panza, and also has a terrific voice; it's too bad he doesn't have better songs and more to do. Tasha X. Waters is very fine as Aldonza/Dulcinea, with an almost operatic voice and other assets reminiscent of Sophia Loren, who played the part in the 1972 movie. (Did you know that Aldonza never actually appears in person in the novel? She is a village girl who Quixote from afar decides will be his Dulcinea, the lady for whom he will perform his knight-errantry. Having her be a tavern wench is another fabrication of Wasserman's.)

The orchestra of fifteen sounds very professional under the direction of Wojciech Milewski. Myra Cochnar, the producer of Landmark Musicals, has made live musicians a priority, and we seem to have more of them with each show. Keep it up, please.

The set is by Dahl Delu, a lot of metal scaffolding and stairs which effectively suggest a prison that can be converted into the illusion of an inn just by moving a few benches around. The lighting by Myers Godwin and costumes by Rosemary Castro-Gallegos are excellent. And the sound design by Chad Scheer is totally flawless, which I really appreciate, because it doesn't happen all that often in Albuquerque.

For some reason, characters occasionally descend into the orchestra pit (by stairs, even though there is a pueblo-style wooden ladder reaching to the stage). You think that something is going to happen down there, but all they do is hand up a prop once in a while, unnecessarily. It puzzled me.

The only other thing that bothered me was the lack of an intermission. The producer told me afterwards that the script they received specifically called for no intermission. However, I think that "The Impossible Dream", which comes about halfway through, is such a high point that the next half hour seems anticlimactic. Then there's some time-wasting when Quixote and Sancho get robbed by a gang of Moors, and the show finally regains its footing with the death scene. A break after "The Impossible Dream" would have been beneficial, I think. Two hours at a time is demanding a lot of an audience, even with a really good show like this one.

The more I think about Man of La Mancha, the more impressed I am by the achievement of Wasserman, Leigh, and Darion. And of Paul Ford (an Albuquerque legend, directing his first musical) and Myra Cochnar and everyone else involved in this production. I'm afraid that if I ever get around to reading the novel, I'll be disappointed because it won't live up to my memory of this show.

Man of La Mancha is being presented by Landmark Musicals at the Rodey Theatre in the University of New Mexico Center for the Performing Arts. Through December 8, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.landmarkmusicals.org or at the UNM ticket offices.

--Dean Yannias



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