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Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Man of La Mancha
Porthouse Theatre
Review by Mark Horning | Season Schedule


Genny Lis Padilla and Fabio Polanco
Photo by Andrea Hallgren
After yet another day of rain in Northeast Ohio it was a sullen and sodden crowd that made its way to the Porthouse Amphitheater. With the reserved tables at the picnic pavilions filled to capacity, many folks had to make do with a picnic in their car. It would take an exceptional show to get this group out of their doldrums. The Porthouse production of Man of La Mancha was just the ticket.

The 1965 five-time Tony Award winning hit (including Best Musical) began on Broadway with 2,328 performances and has been a world-wide crowd pleaser ever since. With book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, the musical was originally adapted from Wasserman's non-musical 1959 teleplay I Don Quixote, which was taken from Miguel de Cervantes' 17th century novel "Don Quixote."

Along with an enthralling and inspiring story, it contains a number of classic Broadway songs that include "It's All the Same," "I Really like Him," "Dulcinea," "Little Bird, Little Bird," and of course "The Impossible Dream." Even such toss-away numbers as "Golden Helmet of Mambrino" and "Moorish Dance" offer a bit of needed comic relief.

It is 16th century Spain, and Miguel de Cervantes finds himself and his man servant in prison facing the Spanish Inquisition. The crime of this failure of an author, soldier, actor, and most recently tax collector was to foreclose on a monastery for non-payment of taxes. For this he is thrown in with a group of murderers, rapists and thieves who have nothing to lose but their lives.

The prisoners attack the pair in order to steal the contents of Cervantes' trunk of acting props and costumes but are stopped by their leader known only as the Governor. Cervantes is put on trial by the outcasts and pleads guilty for being "a bad poet and an idealist" but offers a defense in the form of a play using all of the prisoners as the cast.

From the trunk comes an inexhaustible collection of props, including swords, armor, horses heads, and a lance as the now transformed actor becomes Don Quixote the un-knighted knight and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza. They set off in their quest to fight giants and dragons, help magically entranced kings, and rescue damsels in distress, in particular the chaste Dulcinea.

In reality, Quixote battles a windmill (breaking his lance and mending it with a spindly tree branch, and his sword takes on a cork screw shape). The duo ends up at a castle (an inn full of rough muleteers and women of questionable reputation), but are welcomed by the kindly and understanding innkeeper. It is here at the inn that Don Quixote meets up with the brazen serving girl and part time prostitute Aldonza, mistaking her for the virtuous Dulcinea of his dreams. He then sets out to win Dulcinea's heart, defend her honor, do knightly deeds, and "dream the impossible dream."

What makes the Porthouse production exceptional is the direction of Terri Kent and the compelling choreography of local favorite Martin Céspedes, who himself was in a national touring production of Man of la Mancha. These two have managed to slow down the frenetic action so that the nuances of the theme shine more brightly. The humor is still there, but is done thoughtfully, and the character of Don Quixote rather than being portrayed as crazy is instead shown as a slightly delusional man with a huge heart. Dance sequences are slowed to stress the physical movements and everything is presented in a relaxed pace.

Cynthia Stillings handles the lighting assignments with aplomb, and Parker Strong does an excellent balancing act of vocal and orchestra sound that brings out the best of both. Special mention must also be made of Grace Cochran Keenan's costuming, which is authentic and true throughout, from the elegant Knights of the Mirrors to the rag-tag collection of prisoners and muleteers in their wonderfully distressed outfits. The multi-tiered set by Patrick Ulrich comes with lowering a staircase into the prison cell, complete with squeaky sounds as it is lowered. It is dark, multi-leveled, and strongly textured to give the feeling of lost hope and despair. It should also be noted that, although there is no linguistic coach listed in the program, the cast does a wonderful job with the authentic Spanish pronunciations which is no small feat.

The eleven-piece brass-heavy orchestra does a wonderful job with the Spanish-themed music without going overboard and drowning out the singers or overpowering the audience.

The cast is a collection of stage veterans and students of the Kent State Musical Theatre Program as well as other college programs. Combined, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Leading the way is the excellent Fabio Polanco, who brings a new depth of sensitivity to the role of Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote. In spite of the character's eccentricities, it's easy to root for him to win. While some would play the part for laughs or gimmicks, Fabio plays it straight from the heart. His partner in crime is Timothy Culver, who plays Sancho with wit, charm and wisdom as he tries to rescue his errant friend from catastrophe without being portrayed as a buffoon. Hands down, the most vibrant singing performance is by Genny Lis Padilla as the fierce Aldonza, stealing the show with each stage appearance. Her story is of one who demands respect in spite of where she came from (a lesson still in need of these days).

Other notables in the cast include Brian Chandler, who gives a thoughtful performance as both the Governor and the Innkeeper. There is a common tread of decency that shows the standards of each character. Cody Hernandez requires some challenging costume changes as the Duke, Dr. Carrasco, and the Knight of Mirrors, managing to give distinctive personalities to each character with each costume change. Lastly, there are Zoe Dongas as Antonia and Jay White as the Padre, as well as the ragtag group of muleteers/prisoners.

Any show that can make a weather-weary audience forget about the rain outside with a two and a half hour theatrical vacation knows how to do it right. This version of a Broadway classic is must-see summer theater. Grab a raincoat and make your way to Porthouse Theatre.

Man of La Mancha, through June 29, 2019, at Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls OH. for tickets, visit www.porthousetheatre.com or call 330-672-3884.


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