Review: ‘Man of La Mancha’ at Workhouse Arts Center

Man of La Mancha has long been an icon of mid-20th century American musical theater with its share of 1966 Tony Awards. This show about a man marching forward for “a heavenly cause” is a staple of fond memories for Boomers who likely recall the strong voice of Richard Kiley singing the anthem “Impossible Dream.” You know the one: “I am I, Don Quixote, the lord of La Mancha, my destiny calls and I go…and the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward, oh whithersoever they blow…onward to glory I go!”

Mary Payne as Aldonza/Dulcina. Photo courtesy of Workhouse Arts Center

We’ll put aside that romantic notion of a man attempting to right wrongs under the banner of God, should you venture to Workhouse Arts Center. The production is an untraditional one. Under the co-direction of Mary Payne and Jeff Davis, a dark core of La Mancha has been located and pushed forward into full frontal view.

A trigger warning: this Man of La Mancha production is no misty-eyed memory but something else. It may annoy those who want no changes to what they think they remember. Several scenes may cause major dismay to others with its close-by depictions of violence against a woman.

For those less familiar with Man of La Mancha, here is a quick history and synopsis. The musical was inspired by the adventures of an improbable Spanish would-be knight named Don Quixote, created by Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). The Cervantes fiction became Man of La Mancha with music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and book by Dale Wasserman.

Man of La Mancha is a play within a play. The conceit of the musical is that author Cervantes is thrown in prison with a bag containing his belongings. He is accompanied by his loyal man servant. The fellow prisoners doubt Cervantes’ ability to defend himself from the charges of trying to levy taxes upon a countryside church. The prisoners demand that Cervantes show his mettle; they put him on a mock trial before he appears before the Inquisition authorities. Cervantes transforms himself and then his prison cell. He imagines himself as a brave would-be knight named Don Quixote accompanied by a trusty squire named Sancho Panza. Even the inmates perform.

First, kudos to co-directors Payne and Davis for their set and time in the staging of Man of La Mancha. Performing at the Workhouse, which was not so long ago a Federal prison, this La Mancha is set not 400 years ago during the Spanish Inquisition but in a more contemporary time. It appears to be a present-day prison lock-up. Jeremy MacDuff (Scenic Designer) and Kevn Laughin (Lead Carpenter, Technical Lead) have done fine work in creating and building a prison lock-up that perhaps mimics the cells that can still be found in other parts of the Workhouse multi-acre venue.  

The Workhouse production then pinpoints a shadowy core in a line of dialogue that has flown past me in previous productions of La Mancha: “Facts are the enemy of the truth.” These few words were hurled with a quiet punch and became my personal entry point into a darkly hued production of the venerable Man of La Mancha.

Adding to that with only about 100 seats, none likely more than 50 feet from the stage, there was no hiding from images of pain and suffering and a sense of sorrowful co-dependency among the show’s featured characters and ensemble, and the co-dependency with Don Quixote who is trying to hold off the ravage of aging to keep his own dignity. A strong voiced John Hollinger is featured as Cervantes/Quixote. Hollinger is keen and honest and not over the top as he slides deeper into a fantasy world, perhaps of dementia.

Mary Payne is featured as Aldonza/Dulcinea. She is central to Quixote’s story-telling to his other prisoners. In the fertile imagination of Cervantes/Quixote, in this play-within-a-play, Aldonza is a woman working in a rural tavern who then transforms into a love object Dulcinea. Payne presents her character as a complex woman trying to find her own self-worth in tough conditions. Instead of finding a life of decency, she is humiliated; there is also a suggestive sexual molestation (a key note: The Workhouse does not recommend this production for children).

Merissas Dirscoll is Man of La Mancha’s music director for a small live combo of piano, guitar, and percussion. Overall, the musical is well-sung throughout by both Hollinger and Payne along with a well-voiced, youthful ensemble, many of whom made their professional theater debut. The over two dozen musical numbers go beyond Hollinger’s “Impossible Dream” to Payne’s vibrant, nuanced takes on “What Does He Want of Me?” and “Aldonza.” In the intimate quarters at the Workhouse Theater, Payne does not have to belt, allowing for more bite with the lyrics.

Sung by a group of young men, a musical number entitled “Little Bird, Little Bird” may have a sweet title, but when it is sung in Act II, I wanted to leave my seat and jump on stage to put a stop to the abusive action that went with the song.  

Michael Omohundro as Sancho Panza has a sunny disposition. He effectively sings “I Really Like Him” with a comedic style about why he sticks with Don Quixote. Two other actor/singers to note include the prison cell-block’s Governor, cunningly portrayed by Shaina Higgins, and The Duke, played to a fare-thee-well by Josh Carias.

I did not see or feel idealism and courage or grace from ardent La Mancha at the Workhouse. The grittiness of the production and the less romantic persona of Don Quixote did not inspire me to tilt at windmills. This time around I was sad for characters such as Sancho Panza and Dulcinea who bought into Quixote optimistic messages and suffered the consequences. So, be aware, others may not find a non-romantic La Mancha right for them. This La Mancha does not gloss over the darkness within.

Running Time: About Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Man of La Mancha plays through January 13, 2019 at Workhouse Arts Center – 9518 Workhouse Way in Lorton, VA. For tickets, call (703) 584-2900 or purchase them online.

Note: Special pricing and after-party for the New Year’s Eve performance includes a post-show party and midnight champagne toast. For tickets and more information, go online.

 

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.