Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of Dear Dad
The undeniable virtue of the character of Don Quixote is only one of many reasons the production of Man of La Mancha currently running at Custom Made Theatre Co. is so enjoyable. It's undeniably uplifting to see a manfictional (and deluded) though he may bewho exhibits such a sense of duty, of commitment to truth, defiance of evil, and an ability to see good in others even when they don't see it in themselves. Add to the equation a marvelously nuanced performance by Edward Hightower, backed by a talented and committed supporting cast, presented in an intimate, beautifully designed setting, and directed with tremendous skill and sensitivity, and you have the formula for a most pleasant evening of theatre.
When people think of Tony Award-winning musicals, they probably have in mind big, splashy, colorful productions with lots of changes of scene and costume. Man of La Mancha is not that, taking place entirely inside a Spanish dungeon during the height of the Inquisitionand within the imagination of the inmates who tell the story of the knight errant in an improvised play at the behest of Cervantes himself, who has been flung into the prison while he awaits his date with the inquisitors.
Cervantes the poet is at first set upon by his fellow prisoners, who form their own kangaroo court, whichupon the foregone conclusion of his convictionwill appropriate his few meager belongings for themselves. In his defense, Cervantes (after applying suitably comic bushy eyebrows and a bit of makeup) takes on the role of Don Quixote and begins the story of his quest for truth and beauty. The fellow prisoners join in, playing the other roles in the story (with no script or rehearsal, but hey, it's a musical!), as well as picking up a range of instruments, from tambourine to viola to euphonium.
Director Brian Katz has done stellar work in a small space, using the confines of the Custom Made Theatre to his advantage to create a prison-like sense of claustrophobia, while still giving room for his cast of 13 to fill the stage without it feeling crampedan achievement indeed. (He was ably served in this matter by scenic designer Daniel Bilodeau, lighting designer Maxx Kurzunski, and sound designer James Goode, whose work helps reinforce the omnipotent nature of threat of the Inquisition that hangs over the proceedings.)
Katz is also to be commended for his casting. It would be far too easy for an actor to overplay the role of Quixote. The character is, after all, suffering from the delusion that a windmill is an evil giant, a rundown roadhouse a lord's castle, and a part-time prostitute a lovely lady of breeding. But Hightower wisely skips the histrionics and instead approaches his parts with delicacy and emotional honesty. In the 99-seat Custom Made Theatre, one can actually see the tears begin to well in his eyes, and appreciate the subtlety of gesture he brings to the role.
Dave Leon manages to portray Sancho Panza, Cervantes/Quixote's pint-sized sidekick/squire, with a sense of both docility and dignity. Rachael Richman plays Aldonza/Dulcinea with tenderness, but her voice is too often delicate and a bit reedy, while the character requires quite a bit more oomph. The rest of the cast, with few exceptions, serve the leads well, creating an atmosphere of menace or hospitality as required.
The work of arrangers and orchestrators often goes unnoticed by audiencesand that's probably as it should be. We want to experience the rhythms and melodies and not be taken out of the moment by thinking how lovely it was that the strings took this portion, or brass stepped up to create a mood. But we critics are supposed to take notice of these sorts of things, and Brian Allan Hobbs has done brilliant work translating a score that is usually played by a full orchestra for a small ensemble of two guitars, flute, viola, euphonium and melodica that is absolutely perfect for both the space and the mood established by the composers and director Katz.
Don Quixote's quest was a simple one. "I hope to add some measure of grace to the world." Custom Made Theatre Co. has fittingly brought a little grace to their stage at 533 Sutter Street. And we can all use a bit more of that, can't we?
Man of La Mancha plays through February 17, 2018, at the Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $32-$49, and are available at www.custommade.org.