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Theatre Review: Darker Shades of Familiar Tunes in Taproot’s Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha presents us with a conundrum: is it better to see the world as it is, in all its violence and misery, or to imagine a better world and live as if you are already in it?

The people who surround the self-styled Don Quixote, a scholar determined to become a knight-errant, constantly try to make him see the world as it truly is, and he stubbornly resists. Is he delusional, or does he actually see beauty in everyday things that nobody else can appreciate?

The musical, written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, does not quite answer this question, nor does Taproot Theatre’s production, directed by Scott Nolte, but both hint that the latter answer is the one they prefer.

Read the full review after the jump.

The musical adapts Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote as a play within a play. Cervantes himself, a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, tells the Don Quixote story and acts as narrator and title character, drafting his fellow prisoners as actors.

The two-level set, by Mark Lund, is beautifully designed for Taproot’s compact space. The main room of the prison is the bottom level; a stairway at the back leads to a doorway and outer hall through which prisoners and Inquisition guards arrive and leave. The tiny center stage is kept uncluttered, with a bench and table coming and going as needed. The costumes, designed by Sarah Burch Gordon, also help ground the show. The actors wear a hodgepodge of Elizabethan styles in various stages of decay, which efficiently shows the different ranks of the characters, now leveled by their shared imprisonment.

Jeff Berryman (below, left), leading the cast, anchors the performance with his strong voice. He effectively highlights the differences between the world-weary Cervantes and the idealistic Don Quixote while also making it clear that the two are alter egos. The seemingly tough Cervantes contrasts with the physically frailer but optimistic Don Quixote, but when the latter loses his inner compass, Cervantes at first lacks his will to continue the play.

Berryman sings his music thoughtfully; he begins his most famous number, “The Impossible Dream,” slowly, emphasizing the words, taking pains to make Aldonza, the woman he idolizes, understand why he does what he does.

The role of the serving woman and prostitute Aldonza, called Dulcinea by Don Quixote, is crucial to the conflict between Quixote’s message and the intractable problems he is powerless to solve on his own.

Compared to her compatriots at the inn where she works, Aldonza is the character who is most affected by her brush with Don Quixote and his  “impossible dream,” but she is also the most miserable, and Quixote is unable to save her — in fact, he arguably makes her situation worse. He does, however, give her the strength to try to save herself.

Candace Vance (above) has her character’s cynicism down but manages to show the vulnerability and despair underneath that make her susceptible to Don Quixote. Her movements include a bit too much of what I think of as the “slut strut,” and her way of showing contempt for the men in her life involves a lot of spitting. She is taxed by her music, especially in its upper reaches, but she is touching in her reprise of Quixote’s “Dulcinea” song near the end.

Don Darryl Rivera is a sheer delight as the sidekick Sancho Panza (above, right). His song “I Really Like Him,” in which he tries to explain to Aldonza why he stands by his master (with plenty of cannibalistic imagery — don’t ask), is funny and endearing and deservedly one of the hits of the night.

Standouts among the supporting actors include Mike Oliver, who moves convincingly between his roles as Aldonza’s extremely nasty john and a priest who becomes inspired by Don Quixote.

April Wolfe as Don Quixote’s niece (among other roles) has one of the best voices in the cast, clear and sweet, and nicely conveys the character’s self-interest and hypocrisy. Faith Russell, whose several roles include a barber who is bewildered to lose a hat to Don Quixote’s quest, has beautifully rich alto.

All the performers employ vaguely Spanish accents, which makes no sense, since we can assume they are speaking Spanish, their native tongue. These annoying accents make the dialogue more difficult to follow, but they do become less distracting as the show goes on.

This production does not tell us anything new about Man of La Mancha, but rather provides a straightforward presentation that highlights the darker elements (including a stomach-churning fight scene that ends in an offstage gang rape) but also captures the humor and gentler satirical aspects.

It’s a good way to take in an odd piece of musical theatre that asks more hard questions than it answers.

 

Photos by Erik Stuhaug

Man of La Mancha
July 7 – Aug. 7
Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St.