Thursday, August 13, 2009

Man of La Mancha

The Music Circus production of 'Man of La Mancha,' which continues through Sunday, is proof that you can tell a musical story without glitz or glamor: with nothing more than a solid script, a fantastic cast and a terrific orchestra.

This play-within-a-play - based on the 17th century Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes, with book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion - begins as Cervantes, imprisoned for crimes against the Catholic Church (he attempted to foreclose on a monastery, for nonpayment of taxes), awaits interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition.

The dual roles of Cervantes and Don Quixote are played brilliantly by Walter Charles, a veteran of Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater. Charles is that rare actor who knows that sometimes less is more; his toned-down handling of the 'story telling' parts of the narrative are balanced nicely by his 'acting' in the role of Don Quixote.

We listen more carefully to someone who quietly tells a story, than to someone who emotes all the time.

Kevin Ligon is a delight as the manservant, Sancho Panza. Ligon has a marvelously acerbic method of delivery, and is especially winsome in his song, 'A Little Gossip.'

Cervantes' fellow prisoners hold their own inquisition - a mock trial - during which they accuse the writer of being, among other things, an idealist and a bad poet. If 'convicted,' Cervantes will lose his belongings, which consist primarily of a trunk of theatrical costumes and props, and an unfinished manuscript.

By way of a defense, the author proposes to act out the story of the manuscript, using other prisoners to fill in the roles.

This, then, is the saga of Alonso Quijana, an idealistic old man who imagines himself to be an errant knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha, who travels around 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.'

The delusional Quijana, who promises not to allow wickedness to flourish, is an embarrassment to his respectable family.

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

Valerie Perri doesn't have the vocal richness that one would like in a Dulcinea, but she can belt a tune with the best of them. Her raw portrayal of 'Aldonza, the whore' is very affecting. In deference to the PG audience at any Music Circus production, Aldonza's rape scene is toned down to a suggestive dance, choreographed by Bob Richard, rather than a more graphic attack.

P.I. Brown also turns in a powerful performance, as the 'governor' among the prisoners, and the Innkeeper in Cervantes' play. The latter grants Quixote his knighthood, and gives him the title of 'Knight of the Woeful Countenance.' Brown is an overwhelming presence with a deep bass voice.

The play offers wonderful technical moments throughout. Quixote and Sancho set out on their quest in 'chariots,' which are pieces of furniture found in the jail, pulled by a 'horse' and 'donkey' (Alex Robert Holmes and John B. Williford). The scene brings cheers from the audience, as director Guy Stroman has found the perfect way to move his four-legged creatures around the stage.

A later scene, 'We're Only Thinking of Him,' features Quijana's family and advisers: It's an outstanding lighting effect, with each standing in a pool of light as these characters rotate around the stage. Kudos to designer Pamila Z. Gray.

At one point, a group of Moorish gypsies sets upon Quixote and steals all his belongings, including his animals. Manoly Farrell plays a seductive dancer, distracting the hapless knight while her companions rob him blind.

Quixote maintains his idealism even in the face of these many adversities, until he is forced to look in the mirror and see life as it actually is.

The message of this musical is contained within its signature song, 'The Impossible Dream': One must neither give up one's dreams, nor the hopes that nobility always triumphs, and virtue always prevails.

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