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SAN DIEGO
Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha
Natalie Nucci, John Lalonde and Daniel Berlin
Man of La Mancha arguably marked a turning point in American musical theatre. It opened in 1965, at the peak of that decade's idealism where everyone wanted to "dream the impossible dream." It was awarded the 1966 Tony Award for Best Musical, besting Mame and Sweet Charity. Fiddler on the Roof had been honored the year before, and Hello Dolly! the year before that. Appreciation for darker, more daring topics built from its production, and Cabaret would be named Best Musical in 1967. Man of La Mancha also broke with Broadway convention by using a thrust stage, eliminating strings (other than flamenco guitars) in its orchestrations, and performing a nearly two-hour show without an intermission.

Things have changed since 1966. The Welk Theatre San Diego's production of Man of La Mancha, playing through October 30, captures some of the idealism but little of the innovation of the original.

Based on I, Don Quixote, a 1959 teleplay by Dale Wasserman, the musical version follows Miguel de Cervantes (John Lalonde) to prison while awaiting a hearing in front of the Spanish Inquisition. Set upon by other prisoners, Cervantes becomes the defendant in a mock trial whose outcome will be to forfeit all of his possessions, including a manuscript he desperately wants to save from being burned. Purporting to mount a legal defense for himself, Cervantes transforms himself into the knight-errant Don Quixote and persuades the other prisoners to join him in telling Quixote's story. In doing so, the prisoners come to realize that the manuscript is the written version of Don Quixote and agree to safeguard it when Cervantes is called to face an even more vicious kangaroo court.

Quixote's story, in the Wasserman version, resonated perfectly with the zeitgeist of the 1960s, where young people challenged authority wherever they found it, combatted prevailing mores, and even questioned definitions of sanity, all in the name of constructing a more perfect world. The musical's centerpiece number, "The Impossible Dream," resonated with this against-all-odds mentality and was one of the last songs from musical theatre to be featured on Top 40 radio.

The spirit of the show lives on, despite the pessimism of today's recessionary times. Audiences can still be caught up in Don Quixote's insistence on seeing light amidst darkness, good amidst evil, and chivalry amidst aggression. They can identify with his quest and be inspired by its quirky success. In other words, Man of La Mancha can easily succeed despite its imperfections, both as musical (the book is a bit repetitive, some of the songs are weak) and as a production.

The Welk production rides the crest of the wave of good will built up by the show itself, despite making a lot of compromises. The facility has no capability of creating a thrust stage, and the set and costumes were rented from other productions, so much of the action has to be staged on a small raised platform. Lighting changes (designed by Jennifer Edwards-Northover, who also serves as production stage manager) and props (designed and built by Bev and Bob George) help to vary the feel of the space. Choreography must necessarily be restricted in such tight quarters, and the result is that scenes that are traditionally staged as dance were conceived more as fights by Director/Choreographer Dan Mojica. An intermission has also been inserted that takes the steam out the drama and causes the beginning of the second act to drag.

The production also relies on the performers playing musical instruments. This technique was pioneered by British director John Doyle and can have a stunning effect when it integrates the instruments into the performances. Here, the device seems to be more an attempt to save money than anything else: one actor plays trumpet, a couple of others play guitar, several others play some form of percussion (sometimes to annoying effect), and there is still an off-stage keyboard, played by musical director Justin Gray. The musicians are usually placed on the periphery of the scene, and they aren't really integrated into the concept of the show, despite the fact that each musician plays one or more characters.

Singing styles, too, vary widely. The score is quite operatic in character and calls for a legato style with lots of resonance. As Don Quixote, Mr. Lalonde mostly exhibits this style, as do a few others, particularly A. J. Mendoza as the Padre; Karenssa LeGear in the small role of Antonia, Quixote's niece; and John Polhamus, in the role of the Innkeeper (though, Mr. Polhamus is a baritone in a role that calls for a true bass).

Unfortunately, other performers affect musical comedy belting styles that come across as out of place. As Sancho Panza, Daniel Berlin makes little of the admittedly most insipid songs in the show. Particularly offending in this group, though, is Natalie Nucci's singing as Aldonza, the prostitute whom Quixote remakes as his Dulcinea. While Ms. Nucci's acting is solid, her singing is not: the songs are out of her range, causing her to sing choppily, off pitch and with too dark a tone, particularly in the upper register. The role is better suited to Ms. LeGear's voice, and she is serving as the understudy. Perhaps she will get to show audiences her Aldonza at some point during the run.

Even with all of these problems, though, the essential character and theatricality of the show come through. If you've never seen Man of La Mancha you'll appreciate having the opportunity to do so. If you've seen it before, though, you might want to skip this production and avoid disappointment.

Welk Theatre San Diego presents Man of La Mancha through October 30, 2011 at the Lawrence Welk Resort, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr., Escondido, CA. Tickets are $44 for matinees, $47 for evenings. Tickets that include a pre-curtain buffet meal are $58 for matinees and $63 for evenings. Tickets may be purchased by phoning (760) 749-3448 or toll free at (888) 802-7469. The online box office is located at www.welktheatersandiego.com.

Man of La Mancha, written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. Produced by Joshua Carr and directed by Don Mojica, with musical direction by Justin Gray, sound design by Patrick Hoyny, and stage management and lighting design by Jennifer Edwards-Northover. Featuring scenic design by Chuck Ketter and Greg Hinrichsen and costume coordination by Jenny Wentworth, and prop design by Bev George and Bob George.

The cast includes John Lalonde, Natalie Nucci, Daniel Berlin, John Polhamus, Benjamin Zep Misek, Jason Lee, Lucas Coleman, Joseph Almohaya, Andrew Wade, A. J. Mendoza, Raquel Sandler, April Henry, and Karenssa Le Gear.


Photo: Sharyn Sakimoto

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.



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