Friday, September 21, 2007

Man of La Mancha

Is the Play House “different take” on ‘MAN OF LAMANCHA’ for better or worse?

(This review was altered from its original distribution following an email from Dale Wasserman, the author of the book for 'MAN OF LAMANCHA' which clarified some factual information.)

While visiting New York in 1965, a friend said he had tickets for a new show being staged at the ANTA Theatre that had opened several days before. He knew nothing about the play, but asked whether I was willing to attend. Always the theatre adventurer I said, “Sure.” The show? ‘MAN OF LA MANCHA.’ My reaction? I sat transfixed as Richard Kiley and Clevelander Joan Diener rolled out what has since been dubbed the “right the unrightable wrongs” musical. It was one of the greatest nights I have ever spent in the theatre. So great, that for many years, I refused to go to see any other production of the show. I didn’t want to ruin the “perfect” experience.

‘MAN OF LAMANCHA’ centers on Miguel de Cervantes, an aging failure in his varied careers as playwright, poet and tax collector, who has been thrown into a dungeon to await trial by the Inquisition for the offense of collecting taxes from the Catholic Church. Fellow prisoners attempt to steal his possessions, including an uncompleted novel entitled "Don Quixote." Seeking to save the manuscript, he proposes to tell the tale as a play to entertain his self-appointed convict jury.

Through such songs as "The Impossible Dream," "I Really Like Him," and "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)," the play celebrates the human spirit. In this present age of depletion of personal freedoms, a misguided march into another country for “their own good,” of certain religious groups attempting to set their agenda for all, the concept of individual human sprit is as relevant today as when it was originally written.

"MAN OF LA MANCHA" was conceived as a non-musical teleplay. Writer Dale Wasserman did not do an adaptation of the famous novel, but focused on a major theme, "Only he who attempts the ridiculous may achieve the impossible."

Years later Wasserman was requested to turn the idea into a musical. With lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh, it opened in 1964 at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Rex Harrison was offered the lead, but the musical challenges dissuaded him. Enter Richard Kiley, whose career soared after portraying the dual roles of Cervantes and Don Quixote.

The Big Apple production won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and best actor for Kiley. It was revived on Broadway in 1972, 1977, 1992 and 2002.

It was with positive anticipation that I went to see the Cleveland Play House’s production. Since it was being staged by Amanda Dehnert, who directed last season’s remarkable ‘MY FAIR LADY’ at CPH, I expected to be blown away. I was not blown away. In fact, though I think many of those who see the production will react positively, there were just too many gimmicks, and moving off-center of the story line, to make for my loving the production.

Dehnert has reinvented some of the script, the music and the concept. I am not opposed to innovation if it enhances the over-all effect and doesn’t move from the author’s intent and purpose. I remember sitting at the original production, eyes welling, awed by the pinspots of light on Kiely’s face as he sang the “The Impossible Dream.” I remember sitting in my seat at the end of the show, unable to move. At CPH, there was no emotional high. I left, basically psychologically unmoved.

This is supposed to be an intense, intimate and emotional theatrical piece. In spite of the small theatre space which was ideal for the staging, I found the intimacy largely lost. Many of the songs were sung directly to the audience, rather than aimed at the person on stage to whom the lyrics are aimed. I question the casting of a man to play the housekeeper in drag. It was distracting. It got a laugh, but how did it move the plot along? There was a lack of choreography which had enveloped me in previous productions. I missed being carried on the quest when Don Quixote and Sancho “rode” into the battle. The ending in which Cervantes says goodbye to the corpse rather than Sancho left me confused. The rape scene was lacking the needed intensity. The scene was rushed, the horror not totally developed, the attack was brutal but not evil enough. The explicitness was necessary as we realize later that Quixote’s effect on Aldonza is so complete that even the horrific rape does not erase the respect for self that he has instilled in her. That he has, in fact, achieved the impossible dream, at least as it relates to her.

The production does have many positive aspects. Philip Hernandez is very credible as Cervantes/Don Quixote. He makes “The Impossible Dream” his own, not doing an imitation of those who proceeded him in the role. “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” gets an excellent interpretation. Rachel Warren is Aldonza. Her final scene is excellent as is her interpretation of “Aldonza.” Jamie La Verdiere is delightful as Sancho. His “I Really Like Him” was so pure of innocence and belief that it told the whole story of why some people do what they do, purely out of loyalty. The clarity of the spoken word by the entire cast helps the audience understand the story.

The musicians are good, though, at times, they got a little carried away and drowned out the vocals. Some viewers might be distracted by the musicians doubling as cast members. The question, again must be raised as to what that device did to further the plot.

Some of Dehnert’s “new” production elements, which are touted in the public relations and the program, aren’t that original. We’ve seen cast members playing musical instruments in the recent Broadway restagings of ‘SWEENEY TODD’ and ‘COMPANY.’ And, doing this script as a one-act/intermission-less show, has been done before, as has gender role reassignment.

Capsule judgement: I predict that most audience members will enjoy and have a positive experience at CPH’s ‘MAN OF LA MANCHA.’ My concern is that sometimes in the guise of being innovative, the message of the writer and the emotional responses of the viewer are set aside for the sake of gimmicks and for trying to be part of a new wave.