Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of See How They Run
Based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Dale Wasserman's touching, moving and slightly comical book incorporates Cervantes as the main character, who is an actor, author, and tax collector imprisoned for foreclosing on a church. While he is waiting to be tried he must defend his possessions, including his prized manuscript, in a mock trial by his fellow prisoners in the dungeon where they are being held. Cervantes woos the inmates by telling the story of Don Quixote, the aging "mad" knight who travels with his squire Sancho and believes he has found the woman of his dreams, Dulcinea, in the kitchen wench Aldonza. Cervantes uses this "play within a play" device that has him taking on the role of Quixote and all of the prisoners playing parts in his play.
Director David Bennett's decision to update the time period of the show ends up making perfect sense. The political unrest, turmoil and violence in the streets just outside the room where the prisoners in the show are held during the time of Spanish dictator and general Francisco Franco tie in perfectly to the events of the original setting of the Spanish Inquisition. It also makes for a seamless transition with only a few small tweaks and changes to Wasserman's original script and the lush, melodic score, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. The musical's messages and themes of hope, compassion and understanding also come through with a fresh urgency and clarity.
The production also uses a theatrical device that Scottish director John Doyle has become famous for with productions of two Stephen Sondheim musicals in the mid-2000s, Sweeney Todd and Company, in which the actors in the show also serve as the musicians. While that idea worked fairly well for Doyle's Sweeney Todd, since that production was set inside an insane asylum with the patients acting out the parts in the musical along with playing the instruments, it didn't quite have the same impact with his Company. Fortunately, with Bennett's Man of La Mancha, it makes perfect sense that, since Cervantes relies on his fellow inmates to become the characters in his drama, they'd also be expected to provide the musical accompaniment for his play as well. Music supervisor Tim Symons and music arranger Greg Fulton use a combination of Spanish guitar, violin, accordion, cello, and a few percussion pieces, along with an abundance of hand claps and foot stomps, to create a vibrant soundscape that is steeped in the Spanish setting of the show. The majority of the cast play numerous instruments with ease.
Choreographer Kathryn Van Meter infuses the piece with the beauty and elegance of the flamenco dancer, with excellent contributions from dancers Jose Luis "El Niño" Uz and Amelia Moore, Moore's dance during the "Abduction" sequence being a theatrical highlight.
The cast do a superb job creating rich portrayals of these iconic characters. I saw Philip Hernandez play Cervantes in a production of this show at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in the 1990s and can only say that, while he was good there, for this production he is superb. He creates distinct differences between the characters he plays and provides a warmth and an abundance of grace as well. His rich singing voice injects elegance, passion and clarity into the lyrics, with his rendition of "The Impossible Dream" exceptionally moving.
As Aldonza, Michelle Dawson not only provides the fiery passion the character demands but also infuses a huge dose of both pain and beauty into this lost, suffering and rough woman who finds hope in meeting Quixote. Carlos Lopez instills Sancho, Cervantes' sidekick, with the requisite amount of humor and joy, while Michael Sharon does well as he attempts to be the voice of reason and authority as the Duke.
In smaller parts, Patrick Connaghan is exceptional as the Padre. His excellent trumpet playing is matched by his superb singing voice which delivers a beautiful solo of "To Each His Dulcinea." Kara Mikula is a multiple threat in her ability to play numerous instruments while also creating distinct characters as both Quixote's housekeeper and the Innkeeper's wife. Ana Marcu provides a beautiful singing voice as Quixote's niece Antonia and, like Mikula, is well versed at playing various instruments in the show. There are many show stopping moments in the production, but one of my favorites is when the trio of Connaghan, Mikula and Marcu perform "I'm Only Thinking of Him" with all three playing instruments while also singing. Also, John Patrick Lowrie injects humor and heart into the part of the Innkeeper.
Bennett makes wise choices in his direction which ensure every line of dialogue and musical lyric resonates. He also doesn't include an intermission in the piece, like numerous other productions I've seen have done, performing the show without one as it was originally done fifty years ago keeps the show focused with a driving momentum. The creative aspects are excellent, with the combination of William Bloodgood's static scenic design of the basement dwelling of a street side storefront with Mary Louise Geiger's lush lighting design creating numerous beautiful stage images. The costume designs from Melanie Burgess are steeped in the updated period of the production while also incorporating elements of the original time period of the play within a play element. Abe Jacob's sound design ensures an excellent balance between the vocals and musical elements, with each individual voice and word beautifully heard, as well as the occasional addition of sounds of violence just outside the room that make you aware of the assumed unfortunate fate of the characters.
While I'm far from a purist, I'll admit that when I first heard that ATC was incorporating the "actors as musicians" idea to this production, and updating the time period, I was concerned though also slightly intrigued. Fortunately, with a talented director and gifted cast who have a clear, focused idea, taking a fifty-year-old show that's based on a five hundred-year-old novel and completely changing it to a different time period, results in a moving and memorable production that is also stirring, touching, and full of emotion. It also proves that Cervantes' tale of one man's quest and his dreams and the message of hope not only work in different time periods but also still resonate exceptionally well in today's fractured political environment.
Man of La Mancha at Arizona Theatre Company runs through January 28th, 2018, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling 602-2566995.
Director: David Bennett
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.