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Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Man of La Mancha
Bristol Riverside Theatre
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebecca's reviews of Sister Act and The Secret Garden

Danny Rutigliano and Robert Newman
Photo by Mark Garvin
Man of La Mancha first opened over 50 years ago at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Rex Harrison, best remembered for starring in the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady, was originally cast in the leading role as Don Quixote. It is unclear whether the musical demands of the role were too great for him or he found the show too dark, but the role ultimately went to Richard Kiley instead. Man of La Mancha became a big hit and ran for more than 2,000 performances on Broadway, but it is interesting to ponder how different the show might have been if Harrison had stayed on as the lead. Would the show still deliver its powerful message if the focus was on the book rather than the music? Could the characters remain compelling if the actors had to rely on lyrics rather than strong operatic vocals? Bristol Riverside Theatre's Man of La Mancha answers both of these questions with a resounding "yes." Director Keith Baker has chosen to cast the lead roles with actors who are adequate singers and phenomenal performers. The result is a terrific production that uses emotional insight to make up for what it lacks in the vocal power audiences have come to expect from songs like "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)" and "Aldonza."

Man of La Mancha has a book written by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion. It is framed as a play within a play, opening with famed author Miguel de Cervantes being thrown into a cell to await trial before The Spanish Inquisition. Cervantes attempts to win over his fellow prisoners by putting on a play about an old gentleman named Alonso Quijana who has come to believe he is the brave knight errant Don Quixote de La Mancha. While his family tries to find and bring him home, Don Quixote confuses windmills for dragons, roadside inn for castles, and a bitter prostitute named Aldonza for his own noble lady-fair Dulcinea. Although there are more than a few funny moments, the play is ultimately a dark and serious work about the transformational power and concrete limitations of idealism.

Robert Newman stars as Cervantes, Alonso Quijana, and Don Quixote. Newman has no trouble creating strong distinct characters, embodying a Don Quixote who is appropriately bumbling but undeniably sympathetic and even a little bit noble. Newman's choice to talk-sing some classics like "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)" and "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)" may not sit well with some listeners, but it keeps the focus on the lyrics without limiting these songs' emotional impact. As Aldonza, Tamra Hayden also does a little Rex Harrison style talk-singing and it works decidedly to her advantage. Her rendition of "It's All the Same" is lacking because her voice sounds weak in the song's higher ranges. That weak sound is especially jarring because it is so inconsistent with Aldonza's crude character. Hayden finds her footing by the second act and her rendition of "Aldonza" is spectacular. Speaking, spitting, and barking the lyrics that she is not totally comfortable singing, Hayden's performance is raw and powerful.

Danny Rutigliano brings both vocal skill and fantastic comedic instincts to his performance of the reluctant assistant and squire Sancho. The role of Padre is performed admirably by Robert Farruggia, and Lauren Cupples is excellent as Don Quixote's niece Antonia.

Another stand out is the twelve-piece orchestra whose rich and powerful performance brings the entire theater to life. Liz Atkinson's sound design ensures that sound reaches the audience in all of its glory. Set designer Roman Tatarowicz has successfully turned the stage at Bristol Riverside into a cavernous dungeon for this production. The remarkable set is well served by Ryan O'Gara's lighting design.

Keith Baker's production is not a perfect Man of La Mancha, but like Don Quixote himself, it is earnest, thought provoking, and inspiring. Leave your expectations at the door and you just might find yourself caught up in his impossible dream.

Man of La Mancha runs through June 5th, 2016, at the Bristol Riverside Theatre at 120 Radcliffe Street in Bristol, PA. Tickets are available by visiting or calling the BRT Box Office at 215-785-0100.

Sharon Alexander as Housekeeper
Julia Brightman as Barber
Lauren Cupples as Antonia
Robert Farruggia as Padre
Tamra Hayden as Aldonza
Robert Newman as Don Quixote
Christopher Roche as Duke Carrasco
Danny Rutigliano as Sancho Panza
Dwayne Alistair Thomas as Governor/Innkeeper
Ensemble Members – Rajeer Alford, Daniel Bontempo, Elena Camp, Will Connell, Stephen Dagrosa, John DiFerdinando, Kevin Murray, Victor Rodriguez, Dwayne Washington

Direction: Keith Baker
Musical Direction: Darren Cohen
Choreography: Stephen Casey
Set Design: Roman Tatarowicz
Costume Design: Linda Bee Stockton
Lighting Design: Ryan O’Gara
Sound Design: Liz Atkinson

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