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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Willows Theatre Group Breaths Life
into Man Of La Mancha

Also see Richard's review of Paint Your Wagon

The Willows Theatre of Concord is currently presenting a superb production of Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s 1965 Tony Award winning musical Man of La Mancha. If you can’t get to New York to see the current revival with Brian Stokes Mitchell, this production is the next best thing. Undoubtedly, this is one of the best musical presentations that the Willows Theatre has ever produced. It has a top flight cast, a great set and outstanding direction on the part of Andrew F. Holtz.

I first saw the original Broadway production at the Martin Beck Theatre in the spring of 1968 with Richard Kiley as Cervantes/Don Quixote and Joan Diener as Aldonza. Irving Jacobson played Sancho Panza. The musical ran an amazing 2328 performances and toured extensively around the states. I saw a revival with the same cast at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1972. The last major production that came through our city was the revival in 1992 with Raul Julia and Sheena Easton.

I must admit that I had become rather tired of the song “The Impossible Dream” since it was sung to death by every baritone. It even became popular for auditions and many a singer “murdered” the song. I had always thought that Richard Kiley was the only person who could give me goosebumps when he sang the song, but Rick Williams gives me goosebumps when he sings it in the Willows Production. This is one great performance.

Man of La Mancha is the timeless tale of the quest of Don Quixote, who, along with loyal Sancho Panza, sets out to destroy the evil of the world. The musical is a play within a play with the opening taking place in the late 16th Century in a prison deep beneath the streets of Seville where Miguel de Cervantes, along with a group of rogues, awaits sentencing by the Spanish Inquisition for various crimes and misdemeanors. However, this itinerant poet/failed playwright must face a kangaroo court by his fellow dungeon prisoners to save his latest manuscript from being thrown into the fire. That document is about a man who is captivated by the very old stories of chivalry, and Cervantes sheds his cloak of sanity and dons a suit of armor to become a “dauntless knight known as Don Quixote de La Mancha!” The fellow inmates then all don the costumes of various characters and play respective parts in his drama.

La Mancha is not a musical for cynics, since it deals with the power of the imagination to change and rise above the conditions of our lives. Don Quixote expresses it best in the musical: “not to see life as it is but as it ought to be.” The musical deals with qualities that are sadly lacking in today’s world, like honor, dignity, gallantry and idealism. However, the musical is not overly sentimental, since it does deal with what is real and what is not real. There is humor and enthusiasm in the musical drama.

Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's score is a classic. Besides the off-played “The Impossible Dream,” there are some lovely songs such as “Little Bird, Little Bird,” “Dulcinea, ”I'm Only Thinking of Him” and “I Really Like Him.”

Man of La ManchaThis production boasts a superlative cast with the wonderful baritone Rick Williams playing the dual roles of Cervantes/Don Quixote. Williams has a charismatic presence on the stage, and he plays the part to the hilt. The actor demonstrates his madness and his vision spectacularly. His voice is strong and flexible and he is able to maintain high lyricism for the familiar score.

Cathleen Riddley is marvelous as Aldonza and she has the right amount of biting sarcasm and anger as the slatternly kitchen wench whom Quixote imagines to be the “fair virgin” Dulcinea, a symbol of goodness and purity. Riddley is a luminous presence in this production; her voice sharp and full of emotion. She is a fierce and indomitable actress/singer. Willows Theatre veteran Ron Pickett plays Sancho Panza. He has a wonderful charisma that appeals to the audience. He is not as powerful a singer as Don Quixote, but he is very charming singing in his sprightly voice “I Like Him.”

Martin Lewis, who has appeared in many productions in the Bay Area including five years with Phantom of the Opera here in San Francisco, is the consummate Padre. His rendition of “The Psalm” in the second act is beautifully sung. I have watched Mr. Lewis over the years and this is one of his best roles to date. Eryka Raines as Antonia, Dana Lewenthah as the Housekeeper and Daniel Olson along with Mr. Lewis are delightful in the rendition of “I’m Only Thinking of Him.”

Director Andrew Holtz is presenting La Mancha in two acts and it works very well. Holtz has assembled a first rate cast of singers and actors, and his direction is marvelous. The rape scene of Dulcinea is very realistic, and the choreography by Gia Solari-Welch is perfect. The mirror scene in the second act where Quixote is confronted with realism is beautifully stage. Also, the fight scene staged by Christopher Morrison has a certain Asian flavor to it. In fact, one of the lead dancers, an Asian, does a kung fu Jackie Chan yell before attacking our hero. A little bit of Asian humor does not hurt the 16th Century Spanish scene.

Man of La Mancha's set is astounding. It is a detailed set of a dungeon with a drawbridge that would lead up to the Inquisition Court. Every gray block on this detail set is realistic with cross type windows looking out on both sides of the stage. All of the action takes place in the center of the stage as the “prisoners” move tables and chairs to make it look like a tavern. The lighting by Chris Guptill is stunning. The music is on a special 16 track tape that Holtz has merged together.

Man of La Mancha runs through April 27 at the Willows Theatre Company, Willows Shopping Center, 1975 Diamond Blvd, Concord, Ca. For tickets call 925-798-1300 or log onto www.willowstheatre.org. There next production is Steel Magnolias that opens on May 5.


Photo: Judy Potter


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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