‘Man of La Mancha’ at The Lyric Opera House

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THREE AND A HALF STARS
To see life as it is and not as it ought to be is the gift of poets, playwrights, and now theatergoers of The Lyric Opera House in Baltimore as Man of La Mancha lands for a limited weekend engagement. Written by Dale Wasserman with Music by Mitch Leigh and Lyrics by Joe Darion, the classic tale of Don Quixote takes on a new musical life as the tale of the maddened wise man, or perhaps the wizened madman, unfolds. Directed by Jeffrey B. Moss, the show gallops briefly into the hearts of the audience only to be gone, chasing the quest once more nearly as soon as it arrived.

Scenic Designer Randel Wright has captured the simplicity of the story within a story. The play begins with Cervantes being welcomed to a holding prison, awaiting his trial with the Spanish Inquisition. Therein lies the story audiences have come to hear; his tale of Don Quixote which unfurls within the confines of the prison cell, using inmates as characters. Wright’s design work creates a stunning visual effect, enclosing the space into the tight confines of a prison shaped almost like a narrowing well as it rises up into the rafters. The lowering grate that allows the Inquisition access but keeps the prisoners trapped, mingled with the excessive fog and smoke, creates a loathsome atmosphere, a pit of discontent; perfect for the story’s setting.

Rick Grossman (Sancho), Jack E. Curenton (Don Quixote) and Jessica Norland (Aldonza) in a scene from "Man of La Mancha." Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Rick Grossman (Sancho), Jack E. Curenton (Don Quixote) and Jessica Norland (Aldonza) in a scene from “Man of La Mancha.” Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Lighting Designers Charlie Morrison and John Burkland handle the accents of lighting exceptionally well with their design work, particularly for the scenes that involve the Knight of the Mirror. Morrison and Burkland use a great deal of colored lights in their design, red for more vulgar scenes with Aldonza, and subdued blues and purples to create nightfall. The lighting for this production is executed with precision and creates heightened emotions in the atmosphere.

Director Jeffrey B. Moss’ decision to run the production in its entirety without an intermission creates a lack of momentum and build-up in the performance as a whole. With the Spanish Inquisition pauses that are crafted into the script to break away from Don Quixote’s fantasy and back into Cervantes’ reality, there is something to be said for having the pause. Without the break the cast loses their drive and the second half of the show drags. To Moss’ credit, the infamous rape scene is handled with poise and interpretive dance moves, choreographed by Denis Jones, to imply the intent of the scene without creating too harsh a reality for the audience.

Jack E. Curenton as the title character, the Man of La Mancha, both Don Quixote and Cervantes, gives an uneven performance throughout the production. His acting is on par for greatness; the way with which he narrates the initial story of his life to the prisoners both captivating and compelling. Even as the lunatic knight on his epic adventure his character is firmly in place and well recognized, even enjoyable during moments of hilarious encounters such as that with the gypsies. It is the ballads of this musical where Curenton falls short.  His voice is scratchy and hoarse, clipping longer notes and failing to project in the opening declaratory ballad “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote.)” His rendition of “The Quest (The Impossible Dream)” is stronger than any other song he sings, but unfulfilling as it fails to deliver the booming confidence his character requires to be believable.

Jessica Norland (Aldonza) has the exact opposite problem, her singing is beautiful; a songbird’s cry at times, but lacks emotional depth. Her character lacks the gruff and gritty nature that is attributed to Aldonza and the manner in which she speaks leaves her sounding modern rather than from the time of the story. “What Does He Want of Me?” is a sweet and delicate song that she delivers with crisp sound ascending to the rafters, but the compassion and confusion supported by the lyrics of this song is lacking.

Rick Grossman (Sancho) provides a great deal of talent and comic relief to this production. His hilariously upbeat numbers such as “A Little Gossip” and “I Really Like Him” are quirky and handled with zesty vigor. Grossman has a vaudevillian quality to his speech and his facial expressions; both which really keep the audience giggling during this melodramatic musical. Another scene-stealer of note is Eugene Steficek who appears as the Barber. While his cameo in this role is brief, Steficek gives a rousing rendition of “Barber’s Song” and has all eyes on him with his facial and physical antics during “Golden Helmet of Mambrino.”  Rounding out a trio of hilarity in this production is the Innkeeper (Chuck Caruso). Appearing first as the surly Governor, Caruso dips deep into the comic wells of his talent and panders to the audience when he encounters Don Quixote; his rendition of “The Dubbing” a hilarious number where he belts out extremely low base tones to perfection.

The two strongest voices in the production come from Padre (Chuck Hodges) and Carrasco (Arthur Lazalde). Creating harmonies together in “I’m Only Thinking of Him” both Hodges’ voice and Lazalde’s voice echo strongly in the chorus and finale of this number. Hodges delivers a haunting version of “The Psalm” near the end of the production; a pristine and tranquil yet solemn number that is a great expression of his vocal prowess. Lazalde’s shining moment of vocal perfection comes when he performs during “The Knight of the Mirrors” where he not only sings a bit but delivers a swift blow of truth to Don Quixote with his almost villainous portrayal.

Jack E. Curenton. Photo by  Carol Rosegg.
Jack E. Curenton. Photo by
Carol Rosegg.

Sally forth for this limited engagement as time is brief to follow the quest to The Lyric Opera House before Man of La Mancha rides off into another windmill-filled sunset.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with no intermission.

Man of La Mancha plays through March 15, 2014 The Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric — 110 West Mount Royale Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call (410) 900-1150 or purchase them online.