By James V. Ruocco
It's a story that's been told over and over again, since its inception, 53 years ago.
Nonetheless, there is nothing shopworn, dated or sleepy about the latest incarnation of Dale Wasserman's idealistic parable "Man of La Mancha."
The time lord ("Who?" "Not the Doctor?") overseeing Westport Country Playhouse's invigorating revival of the 1965 Broadway classic is Mark Lamos, a theater auteur and guru whose directorial credits include "Romeo and Juliet," "Tiny Alice," "The Rivals," "Our Country's Good," "Into the Woods" and "Cymbeline," to name a few.
A visionary who often bends the rules to his own liking, Lamos crafts a daring, bold revamp that thrusts this play-within-a-play in a new light that is absolutely dazzling.
This "Man of La Mancha" flows with ease, vitality and anger. It can be bloody dark or achingly real. Playful or witty. Emotional or symbolic. Acutely aware or truthful.
It works on every level.
The story, in a nutshell, goes something like this.
Miguel de Cervantes, an aging, delusional playwright, poet and tax collector, has been thrown into a Spanish dungeon in Seville to await trial by the Inquisition for crimes against the Church. Among his possessions are an uncompleted manuscript titled "Don Quixote," which he utilizes as his defense in the form of a play involving an impromptu court made up of his fellow prisoners. Donning make up, costumes and assorted hand props, everyone acts out the story as "Man of La Mancha" drifts back and forth from reality into fantasy until Cervantes is summoned to his real trial by the Inquisition.
As directed by Lamos, "Man of La Mancha" finds meaning in absurdity, delusion, pathos and comedy without ever missing or skipping a beat. It also delves deeply into other matters of Wasserman's story involving rape, prostitution, madness, fate, deceit, honor and hope. With the groundwork positioned by the show's creators, Lamos lets the material build, develop and breathe both musically and dramatically. Everything is cleverly mapped out from how to move the action forward, how to place each and every one of the actors into the two different stories, how to have them stand, watch and observe from the sidelines and how to use split second timing via actor mode to change from one character to another, then back again.
That said, the show itself remains as potent as ever, with Lamos introducing additional nuance, color, complexity, sexiness and dash to the proceedings. He paints such interesting pictures (the actual stage blocking/arrangement completely mesmerizes), if you look away for a single moment, you might just miss a very important bit of stage business important to his retelling and retooling of the fabled "Man of La Mancha" story.
Winner of five Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Original Score, "Man of La Mancha" contains 26 musical numbers. As written by Mitch Leigh (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics), they include "The Impossible Dream," "Dulcinea," "I'm Only Thinking of Him," "I Really Like Him," "Aldonza," "Little Bird, Little Bird," "Man of La Mancha," "It's All the Same," "What Does He Want of Me," " "To Each His Dulcinea" and "Golden Helmet of Mambrino."
The score, an intoxicating mix of songs utilizing fiery flamenco beats, tangy rhythmic percussions, sultry undercurrents and melodic twists and whirls, offers theatergoers an assorted grab bag of arresting ballads and anthems, comic tilts, beguiling hymns and bawdy, in-your-face pronouncements. As with most musicals from this period, there are a multitude of songs that exist mainly to thrust the story action forward, coupled with many, many showstoppers. The latter, of course, includes "The Impossible Dream," "Man of La Mancha," "I'm Only Thinking of Him," "Little Bird, Little Bird" and "To Each His Dulcinea."
At Westport Country Playhouse, musical direction is provided by Andrew David Sotomayor who makes his WCP debut with his production. He is joined by fellow musicians Ben Clymer (trombone), Simon Hutchings (reeds), Joseph Russo (strong bass), Nicholas DiFabbio (guitar), Daniel Louis Duncan (trumpet), Marshall Sealy (french horn) and Arei Sekiguchi (percussion). Musically, things are smooth, skillful and resourceful and played out exactly as written by the show's composer and lyricist. There are occasional modernist flourishes which work wonderfully well, but nothing that detracts from the story, its music and its well-plotted advancement. Vocally, the cast, under Sotomayor's tutelage, is superior, singing with resounding, beauty, punch and power.
One of the particular pleasures of this production lies in Marcos Santana's fluid, frenzied, feverish choreography. It blazes into life in such robust, inventive ways, it compels admiration at every intricate twist, turn and variation. A visionary of sorts, Santana pays homage to the musical's dancing past, including its handsome galloping horses, but amps things up with modernist twists involving excessive crotch-grabbing, simulated sexual intercourse and blatant male-female gyrating and groping. Elsewhere, there's also lots of well-orchestrated stomping, positioning, stalking, posing, twisting, turning and stop and go maneuvers that heighten the musical's momentum, drama, its reality/fantasy story and its Spanish-tinged environment.
"Man of La Mancha" stars Philip Hernandez as Cervantes/Don Quixote, Gisela Adisa as Aldonza, Tony Manna as Sancho Panza, Paola Hernandez as Antonia, Lulu Picart as Maria/Housekeeper and Carlos Encinias as Padre.
Hernandez not only plays the dual roles of Cervantes and Don Quixote with natural conviction but completely owns them. An exceptional, charismatic actor, he superbly projects the fanatical, delusional, gallant and mad traits associated with the character. And when he sings such showstoppers as "The Impossible Dream" and "Man of La Mancha," among others, his voice is rich and full of glorious passion. In the role of the earthy, often taunted and abused village whore who captures Don Quixote's heart, the beautifully voiced Aidisa offers a full-bodied dramatic turn rich in character, nuance and emotional drive. As Don Quixote's ever-pleasing sidekick, Sancho Panza, Manna nicely projects the mirthful glee associated with this comic role without resorting to overkill. Ms.Hernandez and Ms. Picart who play Antonia and the Housekeeper, execute all the right moves, particularly in their big musical number "I'm Only Thinking of Him," performed opposite the very personable Encinas, who is equally impressive as Padre.
Visually, this "Man of La Mancha" is a pièce de résistance. Wilson Chin's stunning, atmospheric set design is incredibly conceived in all its glory, sprawled handsomely across the inviting environs of the Westport Country Playhouse proscenium stage. Alan C. Edwards moody and evocative lighting design is also of the highest quality, as is Fabian Fidel Aguilar's wonderfully detailed costuming palate.
Handsomely conceived by Mark Lamos, this production of "Man of La Mancha" is bold, bawdy, intimate and sexy. It is not only one of the best interpretations of the Tony Award winning musical in the last decade or two, but one that takes chances, thrills and excites and dances to a decidedly different beat. Mark Lamos wouldn't have it any other way.
"Man of La Mancha" is being staged at Westport Country Playhouse (25 Powers Court, Westport, CT), now through October 13.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 227-4177