Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review of "Man of La Mancha" at the Walnut Street Theatre, published in Edge Philadelphia

For theatre-goers accustomed to the visual and auditory onslaught of musicals written at the end of the 20th Century, 1965’s Man of La Mancha offers little in the way of the spectacle.

While Dale Wasserman scripted his book for a large cast, only two muted, barely rousing chorus numbers take full advantage of their appearance. Joe Darion’s lyrics on many of the songs range from the straightforward to the simple, and that Mitch Leigh’s score contains four refrains, showing a seemingly boring lack of imagination (this isn’t Wagner where you expect motifs that work, or Andrew Lloyd Webber, where they often don’t). Moreover, though magnificent and impressive, the staging never deviates from Todd Edward Ivins’ initial set, most of the cast spends the entire evening sitting or lying down, little action takes place, and what does occur, all happens within the imagination of the main character. Not exactly a promising premise for a musical.

Yet, in terms of pure spiritual excitement and courage, I can think of no musical that matches it. I’m not referring to church or religion here, but to the spirit of the chivalrous Golden Age of Spanish literature from which this musical draws its source—Cervantes Don Quixote—a spirit that argues for a proud and noble bearing in the face of the constant onslaught of life. And in spite of (or maybe because of) all the elements of a traditional musical that Man of La Mancha lacks, this production still manages to soar.

Set in the late 16th Century, Man of La Mancha opens on Cervantes (Paul Schoeffler) being thrown into prison by the Inquisition. His fellow prisoners quickly realize by his dress and bearing that he’s a gentleman (not to mention that his servant, Pancho (Jamie Torcellini) accompanies him even in a dungeon), and attack him, justifying themselves by setting up a mock court in which “one’s fellow prisoner’s determine your guilt first.” If found guilty, he must forfeit all his possessions, including the unfinished manuscript of Don Quixote.

Cervantes offers to stage his defense as a re-enactment of his novel—to explain why his “cowardly idealism” (as they see it) has landed him in a dungeon alongside thieves and murderers. More to relieve their boredom than to truly help out, the inmates take their parts, “converting” the dungeon into a castle, inn, and battlefield, the male prisoners into knights, fellow nobles, and priests (today they could play themselves), and having a prostitute named Aldonza play the princess Dulcinea.

It’s much to this musical’s credit and the Walnut Street’s production that they evoke so much of Cervantes novel with so little, a spectacular feat without spectacle that captures the spirit of indomitable virtue arising from imagination’s necessity in escaping despair. If any “spectacle” does color this production, it’s only noticeable in Jack Jacobs lighting that deftly narrates the play like a film camera that shifts from one location to the next.

Director Bruce Lumpkin stages the right amount of tedium and languor in both the prisoners and the background to imbue their side of the production with the necessary contrast for the grandeur of spirit exhibited by Schoeffler’s Quixote. And while Schoeffler initially seems ridiculous shifting back and forth between Cervantes and Quixote (mostly though, because he plays the latter role with the style of “Master Thespian”), his silky baritone quickly redeems his part, softly blending even his show-stoppers into the general tenor of the production.

Thankfully, the one role that gets to scream and make some noise does so with the fire of a hellcat, as Denise Whelan’s Aldonza ignites the stage with her passionate singing, while still managing to provide a heartbreaking final turn of character in the last moments of the play.

When Cervantes wrote his masterpiece four hundred years ago, Spain was slowly unwinding from the knight’s spirit of living boldly, finding beauty and goodness while fighting what was filthy and base. These Aristocratic values, long since lost on a democratic society, came back to life for a few hours at the Walnut Street, where the notion of “living beautifully” lived once more in song.

A two-hour withdraw from the world that’s well worth seeing.

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