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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Man of La Mancha

Or: A jostling but heart swelling ride

I must confess to having reservations about Man of La Mancha as a musical. While very attached to the play I, Don Quixote by Dale Wasserman, the past productions of its sonorous twin have seemed overblown and extraneous, trading in moving and twisty text for strong arming show tunes.

But perhaps I just had never been close enough to the show before. Director Christopher Anselmo remedies any distancing effect to his audience by staging this La Mancha incredibly close (and extremely loud) allowing his spectators to see enough of the wrenching decisions squirming in the belly of the cast, without exposing the magic of the story. And far from strong arming us, those same brazen and brassy songs scooped us up and carried us far and away.

Man of La Mancha begins in an unnamed Spanish Dungeon where poet, playwright and tax collector Don Miguel de Cervantes (Daniel Zozokos), along with his loyal servant (Franklin Leo Bennett), have been consigned by the Inquisition to await questioning and possible execution for crimes against the church. Before he can deal with the inquisitors, however, Cervantes must stand trial before the brutal and beastial world of his fellow prisoners, judged by the stoney Governor (Quinn Ratan) and prosecuted by the cynical Duke (Adam King).

To escape ill use by the dungeons denizens Cervantes recruits the criminals into performing his latest story: that of the knight errant Don Quixote de La Mancha, his Squire Sancho, and their encounter with a most unfortunate young woman named Aldonza (Maia Safani).

Enchanted and buoyed as I was, to ride beside this noblest of knights for an hour or two, I must confess the production could have used a week more of use before opening. The cast was suffering from an acute case of forearm-acting-itus (Dear creatures, Nature has given you all sorts of useful joints and mussels. Why not make more use of them?) The sight lines, for so angular a space and so large a cast, left a great deal to be desired. And perhaps most grievously, the mic’s and speakers had gone hand in hand to the dark side, rendering many of the songs unintelligible and the projected voice of the Inquisition diminished to a very scary and authoritative Peanuts adult (and I quote “Whaa waa CERVANTES Whaa waa wha SOON waa”).

I hasten to add that despite these ruts in the road the ride was marvelous indeed. The world of the dungeon and Quixote’s dream were fully fleshed out and realized, with a Zimmerman-esque simplicity. Melissa McSweeny’s set is one of the most surprising, inventive and delightful we’ve seen in years. Special mention goes as well to Sancho’s and Quixote's noble steeds (Casey Reed and Justin Shannin).

And, forearm acting aside, when it mattered the cast rode into the lists and out again with flying colors. Zozokos has an incredibly fine voice which, like a mountain spring, rises up from cavernous depths to bring the sweet words to our ears. Though understated as both author and creation, his pursed lip and darting gaze allow us to follow the ones worry and that others faith, on a clear lit road from one triumph to another.

Safani is to be similarly lauded. She couples her strong voice of punching power with an actresses understanding of “trigger” and “heap”. While in other productions the poor girl can be played in endless variations on the “angry” string (and who can blame her, in that bitter life amidst the forest of grasping hands), Safani shows us her progression from suspicion to delight to hostility to tenderness without losing any of her essential fire.

Of our three heroes my hat must come off to Bennett for his superb Sancho. From the minute of his surprise entrance in the rousing “I, Don Quixote”, Bennett mixes clarity of speech, malleability of expression, and alacrity of feeling into a delightfully whimsical concoction, who at the same time is perhaps the most grounded soul in the show.

Other notable parts must go to Rattan, for his commanding power, Elizabeth Romero for her oft-silent but wickedly pointed snarking as the innkeepers wife, and Daniel Bender Stern as the Padre, Zozokos match for strength of speech and Bennett’s for expressiveness.

And all, all, simply all the cast shown in “the Impossible Dream”, that anthem of nobleness that never fails to stir the thing with feathers that flutters ‘bout the human heart. By the finale, as each character, tall and small, lifted that melody against the cruel winds of the world, even these glassy eyes could not help but moisten. They did the show right proud and, like Cervantes swept aside the sight lines and the useless mikes and showed us what the production strove to be (and often achieved): a braw story, a soaring score and a brave band of artists hurling down the gauntlet and joyfully charge into our hearts and hunt for glory there.

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