Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2008
“And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star”
- Joe Darion
Lord, how I loved the Original Broadway Cast album of Man of La Mancha. I played that thing until the grooves had grooves in them (yes, it was a vinyl record, there was no higher recording technology then.) I can still see the bright yellow record jacket with the Hirschfeld sketch of Richard Kiley, Irving Jacobson, and Joan Diener on it. I wanted to see the show soooooooooooooooooo badly but my parents said, “You’re too young.” They were right, I was eight. But luckily the original production of Man of La Mancha (there have since been four Broadway revivals) ran for 2,328 performances, and for my 13th birthday I was given tickets. I was thrilled.
Astoundingly, I have not had an opportunity to see it since.
We think of Man of La Mancha as a “big Broadway musical” because it was a big hit that packed big Broadway houses and spawned a couple of big hit songs along the way, but it is actually a small. Performed here without an intermission with a cast of twelve and a three piece "orchestra" it feels downright intimate. What is big about it is the music and the lyrics and the ideas behind them, which is what I fell in love with at age eight. About Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) and Don Quixote* I knew nothing, what I knew was that those songs spoke about great big things – anger, lust, honor, imagination, and a desire to do and be our very best no matter what the world thinks of us.
Librettist Dale Wasserman felt, after reading both volumes of Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote, that it was a book that should never be dramatized, but what did catch his imagination was the story of the author himself, which is a fascinating one. He decided to frame Man of La Mancha within Cervantes’ imagination as he, like Scheherazade, bargains for his life in a dank prison by enacting parts of Don Quixote with the inmates while awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquisition. (Cervantes most likely began the lengthy process of imagining and writing Don Quixote while imprisoned in Seville in 1597.)
This framing device is my least favorite part of the show because it means that the leading man, in this case Kevin McGuire, is playing not two roles but three – Miguel de Cervantes, the man who imagined Don Quixote; Alonso Quijana, the man who imagines he is Don Quixote; and Don Quixote himself. Quijana is the murkiest of these three characters, we learn more about his niece Antonia (Keelye St. John), her fiancé Dr. Sanson Carrasco (Chris Restino), his housekeeper (Kim Johnson Turner), and his village priest (Richard Howe) than we do about him. All we really know about Quijana is that he is “not himself.” It is popularly believed that he is crazy, even his manservant Sancho Panza (Doug Ryan) thinks so, although he follows him faithfully and picks him up after every fruitless battle.
The fun parts of the show involve Don Quixote and Sancho. It had not dawned on me until I came to write this review that, in the original Broadway production, Sancho was cast as a Jewish clown. How odd. The Spanish Inquisition ordered all Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain in 1492 and things weren’t very much better a hundred years later. But the year before Man of La Mancha swept the Tonys Fiddler on the Roof had done the same, so I suppose short, rotund Jewish men were all the rage.
Doug Ryan is not rotund and I have no idea what faith (if any) he espouses, but he is shorter than McGuire and therefore a visually acceptable Sancho. Sancho is the quintessential sidekick. Without Cervantes where would Ed Norton and Barney Rubble and BooBoo Bear have been? And Ryan, a superb clown, plays the role quite straight, allowing the show to focus where it belongs, on Aldonza (Sandra Bargman).
Man of La Mancha is one of the few Broadway musicals not to feature a central romantic couple. Don Quixote and Sancho are the core team, but they are not complete until they are joined by Quixote’s Dulcinea. And there is no Dulcinea until Aldonza is transformed. Quijana’s family tries mightily to transform him back into a quiet, rational man, but Aldonza interrupts and brings him back to his fantasy life so that she can be born again.
I think the depiction of a strong woman (Aldonza is described as a tigress) fending for herself in a man’s world was a major part of my fascination with the score of this show as a child. At one point Aldonza is certainly down for the count, but she rallies and wins in the end. Bargman is a force to be reckoned with on stage. You immediately see what Quixote sees in her – beauty, intelligence, determination – underneath the filth and grime of her hard-lived life.
McGuire is a very physical actor, and, if I had any complaint at all about his Don Quixote it is that he looks way too young and healthy for the part. Quijana/Quixote is a man at death’s door and McGuire ain’t quite dead yet. In a larger house he could have been heavily made up to simulate age, but in the intimate confines of Hubbard Hall that would never work. So McGuire uses his energy and virility to sell Don Quixote’s impossible dream to the max. It is so wonderful to hear him sing The Quest and the title song. I know that Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh wrote The Quest (which is the actual title of the song that begins “To dream the impossible dream...”) but doesn’t it just seem to be one of those songs that was always in the ether waiting to be written down?
Actually, my big complaint is not McGuire’s performance, but his direction. Yes, he directs as well as stars in this show, rumored to be his last as Artistic Director of the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, and since the characters he plays appear in almost every scene he obviously couldn’t stand back and look at much of what he was directing. He has chosen to seat the audience on either side of the playing space, which runs from the balcony to the stage but is mostly on the floor in between those two raised areas. If the actors play to either half of the audience they have their backs to the other half, and so they mostly play to each other and everything is sort of in profile. You feel once removed from the action.
Richard Cherry is the Musical Director and the pianist, assisted by Sam Farkas on guitar and Rich LaPlante on percussion. They are seated on the stage behind a thin black scrim. Everyone is very strong vocally with the exception of Ryan, who is not a singer but then Sancho doesn’t really have to be. He does a decent job on his two solos – I Like Him and A Little Gossip – but hasn’t quite perfected his own version of Rex Harrison’s speak-singing yet.
The supporting cast is versatile and pleasing. Everyone gets a little featured moment and their voices blend nicely in the group numbers.
One Last Note: I took my son Brandon with me to this show, figuring, at nearly 20, that he was more than old enough, and he turned to me at the final curtain and said, “You didn’t tell me about the really nasty rape scene.” In my mind, while rape is always nasty, that was a very gently staged rape scene, but I suppose it is nastier if you are not expecting it, so I hereby warn you that Aldonza is gang raped, although everyone keeps their clothes on. This is why my parents wouldn’t let me see the show until I was 13, and you may want to do the same with your children.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of Man of La Mancha runs through June 1 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. The show runs just about two hours with NO intermission and is suitable for teen and adults. Individual tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members, and $15 for students. TCHH also offers a group sales rate of $10 per ticket for blocks of 10+ tickets reserved in advance by non-profit organizations. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
Child care for children ages 4 to 12 will be available on Friday evening, May 23 beginning at 7:15 p.m. Cost is $5.00 per child. Each child should bring a sleeping bag and pillow. There will be Red Cross-certified babysitters under adult supervision with movies, music and reading. Each child should bring a sleeping bag and pillow. Reservations are required and space is limited to 20 children. Please call 518.677.2495 by 5:00.p.m. on Friday, May 23.
On Friday, May 30 audience members can join director McGuire and the cast and crew of Man of La Mancha for a traditional theatre “talk-back” after the show ends to discuss the process of creating and presenting the production. Additional reservations are not required, only the tickets for that evening’s performance.
* = In case you are have only heard the words Don Quixote spoken but never seen them written, I will explain that the second word is pronounced key-HO-tay. Familiar now?
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008