Loud applause turned thunderous, accompanied by a long-lasting standing ovation after the opening performance of Man of La Mancha on Monday, March 23 by DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The audience was clearly excited about the STC’s take on the 1965 Broadway hit musical, known for its innovative staging, wonderful songs (music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion)—including the near anthem, Impossible Dream–and its witty, yet heartfelt, book by Dale Wasserman.
The Australian musical and opera singer is a gifted actor with a rich voice, who did justice to the triple roles of Cervantes/Don Quixote/Don Quixana.
The show is also known for the play-within-the-play format. Miguel de Cervantes, later to be known universally for his classic novel, Don Quixote, is awaiting trial by the Inquisition in a prison cell. A sometime poet and actor, currently tax collector, he has been imprisoned after foreclosing on a monastery he was trying to tax. As an extra indignity, he is forced into the company of his fellow prisoners, cutthroats and thieves, who would steal his few possessions.
These include a manuscript of Don Quixote. In order to salvage it from their greedy hands and the fire, Cervantes presents a charade in which the prisoners become the characters and he assumes both the role of his book’s protagonist, Don Quijana, and the Knight Quijana imagines himself to be. The rest is theater history.
With its message of hope, idealism, and the benefits of mild insanity over pure facts, Man of La Mancha has always been one of my favorites. I wanted very much to join in the reaction of last night’s audience, but found I couldn’t.
The musical is also known for its appealing blend of humor and pathos, and to me it seemed as if the direction by Alan Paul steered unduly in the direction of humor, almost self-mocking. There was also too much over-the-top action.
The strongest element in the production is clearly Anthony Warlow. The Australian musical and opera singer is a gifted actor with a rich voice, who did justice to the triple roles of Cervantes/Don Quixote/Don Quixana. There were moments Warlow seemed more a Lear than a Quixote—bobbing his head more like a doddering fool than a madman—but overall, he would have shone if surrounded by a greater number of other strong performances and more-restrained directorial choices.
The role of Aldonza, the kitchen maid/prostitute who becomes transformed by Don Quixote, is a plum one—but difficult. She has to change in front of us, within a reasonably short period, into a woman of dignity. Amber Iman has a lovely voice, but at this point in time, her acting chops don’t match them. Her speaking voice was American South, kind of jarring for a play set in 16th-Century Spain.
Very shocking in the original show, especially for its time, is the abduction and gang rape of Aldonza by all the muleteers. With the passage of time, of course, we become “jaded,” and that scene might have less impact no matter what. But here, the power of it was reduced additionally by the way the muleteers are charged to behave from the beginning of the play—pawing Aldonza in such an aggressive manner that rape seems more inevitable than had they just teased her.
Sancho has often been played by rotund, middle-aged men, so one could see why Paul and his casting directors might want to select a younger man. But in choosing someone maybe 20 years younger than Quixote is supposed to be, they strain credulity a little. How many years could master and squire have been together with such an age difference? And Joshi’s performance, while enjoyable, goes overboard in the humor department.
Dan Sharkey, as the prisoner called the Governor, who also plays in the Innkeeper, offers a more balanced (in terms of comedy versus seriousness) performance.
Though it’s not one of the best-known songs in the musical, I very much enjoyed “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” The operatic voices of Martin Sala (The Padre), Maria Failla (as both Quixote’s niece, Antonia, and Fermina, a second kitchen maid who hates Aldonza), and Rayanne Gonzales (the housekeeper and innkeeper’s wife), seem to fit the music. Jazzing up other songs doesn’t work well with this show.
Although Robert Mammana, as Antonia’s fiancé (and also the prisoner called “The Duke”) doesn’t sing as well, he conveys the hauteur of Dr. Carrasco.
Perhaps because of the more brutally sexual nature of the muleteers than has been presented elsewhere, Caesar F. Barajas, as Pedro, their leader, doesn’t come across as distinctively as he might.
Most troubling for me as a lover of this show is that in the end, it didn’t seem moving.
The orchestra, off to the side, played wonderfully under music director George Fulgiiti-Shakar.
There is more dancing here than in the original production Marcos Santana choreographed. David Leong is responsible for the fight choreography, including the struggle between Quixote and friends and the physically stronger muleteers.
The metal, jail-like scenery and movable staircase are among the contributions of Allen Moyer, who uses the multiple but simple props to good effect.
Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward achieves quick changes and Cervantes’ transformation through makeup, beard, and hair into the knight of his creation. Robert Wierzel is the lighting designer—with a lot of darkness called for. Ken Travis is sound designer.
Laura Stanczyk is the casting director.
Advisory: Suggested for mature audiences. Man of La Mancha contains violent and adult (including the rape scene, though stylized).
Man of La Mancha is playing at the Sidney Harman Hall of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, 610 F Street, NW, DC., through April 26. To purchase tickets or to learn more, call the box office at 202-547-1122 or click here.