Monday, May 09, 2005

Man of La Mancha

...and when she was good
she was very, very good...

Director Jan Isaacson’s production of the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s Man of La Mancha, which opened Friday at the Varsity Theater, is very good.

The Broadway hit, by Dale Wasserman, 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, thrown into prison while awaiting examination by the Holy Inquisition for having the effrontery to foreclose on a church which had not paid his taxes.

Cervantes' fellow prisoners hold their own Inquisition, a mock trial, accusing the writer of being, among other things, an idealist and a bad poet. If "convicted," he will lose his belongings, which consist primarily of a trunk of theatrical costumes and props, and an unfinished manuscript. In his defense, the author proposes he act out the story of the manuscript, using other prisoners to fill in the roles.

It is the story of Alonso Quijana, an idealistic old man who imagines himself to be living in Medevial times as an errant knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha, who travels the countryside 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. The delusional Quijana is an embarrassment to his respectable family.

Without a commanding Cervantes, you have no Man of La Mancha, and in newcomer Byron Westlund (who played this role at Cabrillo Stage in Aptos), Jan Isaacson has hit a goldmine. He is tall, rugged and stately. He has a rich baritone and is an excellent actor. What more could one want?

As Sancho Panza, Cervantes’ manservant, Ryan Adame gives the character a boyish enthusiasm that is endearing.

Quixote sees things as he wants to see them, not as they really are. Thus a windmill becomes a giant beast to be attacked, a country inn becomes a castle, and Aldonza, the serving wench and town whore, becomes the lovely "Dulcinea," a fair lady whom Quixote insists on treating with dignity, gentleness and respect and becomes her protector.

Lauren Miller is a world-weary, jaded Aldonza, confused by the eyes through which Quixote sees her. Miller had a bit of trouble with her high notes, but otherwise gave a strong performance. Her rape scene was disturbingly effective.

Other noteworthy performances were Steve Isaacson as the “Governor” of the dungeon, who doubles as the innkeeper who agrees to make a knight of Quixote and gives him the name “Knight of the Woeful Countenance.”

John Hancock gave a high-powered performance in the dual roles of the Duke and Dr. Carrasco who, with J.D. Diefenbacher as The Padre, Dannette Vassar as the Housekeeper, and Emily Beal as Antonia sings the delightful “I’m only thinking of him.”

Ben Wormeli is the on-stage guitarist.

The ensemble is strong, and particularly lovely in the harmonies for the gentle “Little Bird, Little Bird.”

Set design by Steve Isaacson exhibited better production values than the usually-struggling company is sometimes able to afford, and the lighting (also designed by Isaacson and run flawlessly by first-time technician Julie Kuhlman) dramatically set the scene of an underground dungeon, with a window at ground level through which fog can be seen. The lighting is particularly dramatic when steps are lowered to permit new prisoners to enter the dungeon.

Long time company costumer Jean Henderson turned out her usual collection of good-looking costumes, appropriate to the period.

The fifteen-piece backstage orchestra produced a full sound that made a nice accompaniment to the on-stage action.

Man of La Mancha continues at the Varsity Theater through May 29.

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