Perhaps one of the most popular and perennial favorites from a golden age of American musical theatre, Man of La Mancha (with book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh), offers a great deal more than its contemporaries. By investigating the connection between madness and idealism, or madness and art for that matter, the musical constructs a complex model of theatricalism, warms the heart with some unforgettable songs, all while asking the question, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?”
In Bristol Riverside Theatre’s recent production, directed by Artistic Director Keith Baker, the low-key comedy of the piece is brought to the forefront, giving a more congenial nature to a show that has its fair share of dark moments. While both the weight and the lightness are key to La Mancha’s charm, Baker balances the various narrative elements well with a careful consideration for the storytelling and an eye for grand spectacle. And he has a terrific 11-piece orchestra performing the popular score and lead by Musical Director Darren R. Cohen.
The framework of the plot revolves around Miguel de Cervantes, the sixteenth century poet and author of the epic Don Quixote, though is not necessarily based on true events. Cervantes, having become a tax collector in tough times, is thrown into prison to await the Spanish Inquisition, and quickly becomes victim to his fellow prisoners. In his defense, he constructs a retelling of Don Quixote using himself and the other criminals as the characters. A play-within-a-play emerges wherein he becomes Alonso Quijana, a madman who believes himself to be the dauntless knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha.
It is up to Robert Newman to tackle this large challenge of bringing three identities to life while the plot bounces back and forth between “reality” and the imagined storytelling roles. Newman brings a great deal of gusto to the role, working tirelessly for every moment. Musically he sits comfortably in the score, especially “The Impossible Dream,” but his Quixote tends to drift more towards clownish and less towards madman with his bright red made up cheeks and stringy pale grey wig. Yet through the blustering he isolates some truly touching moments of sincerity, in each of the distinct men he portrays.
By his side along the way, follows his faithful squire Sancho Panza (Danny Rutigliano), charmingly full of proverbs. Rutigliano’s Sancho has a wonderful way of grounding his master with both his gleefulness and his withering punchlines, and his endearing renditions of “A Little Gossip’ and”I Really Like Him.”
And quickly becoming object of Quixote’s affection and delusion, Aldonza (Tamra Hayden) the kitchen maid transforms into the sweet Dulcinea in his eyes. A musically challenging role Hayden may not have the command of the higher ranges of the score, but has Aldonza’s brusque and brooding nature in spades in her performance and her feisty renditions of “It’s All the Same” and “Aldonza.”
A large, diverse, and versatile ensemble fills out the rest of the stories roles; innkeepers, muleteers, the formidable Inquisition. Standing out among the bunch are Christopher Marlowe Roche as a boisterously bothered Dr. Carrasco, and Lauren Cupples as Quixote’s innocent niece.
Stephen Casey’s choreography brings life to the production setting the stage especially well with a tempestuous opening tango sequence as well as an intricately staged and dangerous confrontation between Aldonza and the muleteers.
Set Designer Roman Tatarowicz creates an impressively majestic underground jail with all the nooks and crannies for the different worlds to play in, while Ryan O’Gara’s imaginative lighting design bounces off every corner of the space enveloping the theater in Quixote’s tale.
A wonderfully ragged costume design by Linda B. Stockton completes the picture of a jail full of common prisoners creating magic through the epic story.
The subtle message of the piece endures no matter how many years go by, a testament to Cervantes vision. His world, filled with the intense fear of persecution, appeared bleak and desolate to anyone hoping to find any good left in humanity. And while some believe Quixote’s idealism to be complete madness, perhaps it is the madman who is the wisest amongst us. As he puts it, “Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” Man of La Mancha offers a fantastical view of reality, yet still challenges us in the most desolate of times to “fight for the right without question or pause” and to continue dreaming what seems like the impossible dream.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.