Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Man of La Mancha

The Davis Musical Theatre Company has mounted another enjoyable production of 'Man of La Mancha,' continuing through Dec. 7 under the capable direction of Jan Isaacson, with musical direction by Jonathan Rothman,

Dale Wasserman's Broadway hit - with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion - is a musical drama: a play within a play within a play, which tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes (Tae Kim), who has been thrown into prison to await examination by the Holy Inquisition, for having the effrontery to foreclose on a church that did not pay its taxes.

As is their custom with new arrivals, Cervantes' fellow prisoners hold their own Inquisition - a mock trial - and accuse the writer of being, among other things, an idealist and a bad poet. If 'convicted,' he'll lose his belongings, which consist primarily of an unfinished manuscript and a trunk of theatrical costumes and props.

Cervantes mounts his defense in the form of a play, in which he takes the role of Alonso Quijana, an old gentleman who has become delusional and now believes himself to be a medieval knight errant.

Quijana renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, and travels the countryside with his trusty squire, Sancho Panza (Jason Hammond), fighting beasts and rescuing damsels in distress: 'He ponders the problem of how to make better a world where evil brings profit and virtue none at all; where fraud and deceit are mingled with truth and sincerity.'

He promises not to allow wickedness to flourish.

At first sight, the diminutive Tae Kim seems an unlikely Cervantes; the character is more traditionally a taller, older and more commanding presence. But all doubts are erased once Kim begins to sing, and he steps comfortably into the playwright's shoes.

Kim did have a few difficulties opening night, trying to stay with the orchestra in a couple of places, but otherwise he was excellent.

Hammond is outstanding as Sancho Panza, a large but gentle man who is extremely protective of his master.

The two ride out from Quixote's home on trusty horses. The latter are prisoners in horse costume, and it's unfortunate that the actor playing Quixote's horse is so tall that he prevented the actor from being seen for most of this number.

En route, Quixote does battle with a 'monster' - actually a windmill - and decides to take refuge in a neighboring 'castle,' actuality a local tavern that only appears to be a castle in the faux knight's delusional mind.

The pair encounter Aldonza (Lauren Miller), the weary and bitter barmaid and town trollop, who appears to Quixote to be the lovely and virginal Dulcinea, the maid he pledges to serve, protect and defend with his life. Aldonza is confused by the gentle, courtly manner in which he treats her.

Lauren Miller has made quite an impact while playing roles such as Annie Oakley in 'Annie Get Your Gun,' the secretary Gladys in 'Pajama Game' and Audrey from 'Little Shop of Horrors.' All are brash, bold, colorful women, and Miller delivered them well.

Aldonza is a different type of a role, and Miller definitely has the singing voice for it - despite some harsh notes in her upper register - but her speaking voice occasionally echoes the brassy manner of all those other characters, which could be a bit grating on the ear. Despite that, Miller's Aldonza displays the proper balance of harshness and tenderness toward Quixote.

Steve Isaacson returns in the dual roles of the 'Governor' of the prisoners and the Innkeeper who is talked into knighting Quixote, and giving him the title of 'Knight of the Woeful Countenance.' As always, Isaacson's performance does not disappoint.

Mark Ettensohn is the 'Duke,' who takes an instant dislike to Cervantes; Ettensohn also plays Dr. Carrasco in the charade performance. He too, does a memorable job.

The delusional Quijana is an embarrassment to his respectable family, and the tuneful 'I'm only thinking of him' is sung by Quijana's niece Antonia (Jennifer Berry), his housekeeper (Emily Beal) and their priest (Michael Manley, who has the widest vibrato I've heard from a man in a very long time).

Isaacson's massive set is impressive, with a huge staircase that lowers whenever anyone enters the prison.

The six-piece orchestra is fine overall, although the horn section displays occasional weaknesses, particularly during the overture.

Overall, though, this is a very good production of 'Man of La Mancha,' and it's certain to satisfy audiences.

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