Man of La Mancha, Book by Dale Wasserman, Lyrics by Joe Darion, Music by Mitch Leigh. Directed by Tim Fort. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
The Finale; photo: provided
"For once, will you look at me as I really am."
Michael Mendez as Sancho and Geoffrey Wade as Quixote; photo: provided
For a change, "Man of La Mancha" is seen as it was conceived to be seen. At the Weston Playhouse, in Weston, Vermont, director Tim Fort has realized this show as it was meant to be performed and received. Fort must be looked at as the stage edition of Ken Russell, however. He has populated his company with actors whose names do not resonate with star power; he has not pushed to the front of his company any one performer. Instead, as in Russell's remarkable film edition of "The Boy Friend," we have the perfect company understudies, the stand-by Joan Diener, the stand-by Richard Kiley, the stand-by everyone else. As in all good theater companies the understudies have been hired because in a pinch they can go on and please their audience just as much as the stars for whom they stand in waiting. And every once in a while in such a group a few people emerge as stars in their own right - think of Shirley MacLaine going on for an ailing Carol Haney in "The Pajama Game" and thrilling the audience, getting a Hollywood contract and moving upward in her career. It happens. It's not a myth or a Warner Brothers, 1934 movie. Good actors who stand-by can make a claim to greatness given the right opportunity.
The talent in this company in Weston is overwhelming. For instance, Michael Mendez who plays Sancho Panza. Here is a good looking actor, far too young for this role, who makes it his own, sings well, acts well and is amusing rather than silly. He brings a human quality to a caricature of a role. In his capable, talented hands he keeps us on his side no matter how painful his decisions, no matter how crude his gestures. He is a man and we appreciate his care for his master, his unused strengths and his willingness to be what is needed when it is needed. It's a wonderful performance.
Geoffrey Wade is not the greatest singer, but his performance of Don Quixote's songs has all the gusto that character requires and his open, plain delivery of his lines is both certain and sure. This is not an earth-shaking performance but it is steady and of good quality. His near-destruction at the hand of his tormentor is so well acted that the Don's pain is fully transmitted and that's good acting.
Allen Kendall's Padre is the most beautifully sung edition of the role I have ever heard. His tenor voice is strong and true and a rallying call in song. He sings my favorite song in the score, "To Each His Dulcinea" so prettily I was moved to tears. Likewise his "De Profundis" at the end of the play produced the same reaction for very different reasons.
Clara Cox was a silly Fermina and a charming Antonia. Thursday Farrar was a fine Maria and an excellent Housekeeper. Munson Hicks was a fine Captain of the Inquisition and Adam Shonkwiler was a genteel Anselmo, not an easy task. David Brummel made the Governor and Innkeeper into two very different roles which was wonderful. Erick Pinnick kept his two parts nearly identical which worked perfectly for the play. There wasn't one poor performance in the lot and the company as a whole was a splendid ensemble of players.
The Shirley MacLaine award goes to Marissa McGowan as Aldonza who is recreated as Dulcinea. I liked her from the outset but came to love her when she returns from her good deed mentally and morally destroyed and sings "Aldonza." The fire in her voice and the passion in her face and body made the song so much better, so much stronger than it has been in other renditions I've seen. Here is the understudy emerging as a new star. McGowan becomes the woman she sings about, "born in a dungheap to die in a dungheap." It is a performance that buries those that came before it and the actress borne on the music and words is transfigured and transformed from the very good to the very great.
Performed in a single one hour and forty-seven minute act on a set by Jim Sandefur that is bound in image to the original 1965 design, the show begins slowly and feels slow until about 17 minutes in when the fantasy fiction of Don Quixote takes over the sombre staging. Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes also echo the past and are just right for this show's many characters. Travis McHale makes good use of his lighting possibilities and Angelo Fraboni's choreography is most effective. Daniel Feyer has done a wonderful job with the orchestral reduction and handles his five piece orchestra masterfully.
Tim Fort, the new Ken Russell, has presented an unusual and remarkable show. He has given us back the concept, presented some dynamic performers and enthralled us with his final product. I saw the final preview and if anything has changed I would be amazed. The show was perfect just as it was and our audience knew and appreciated it. Like the show or not, it is one to be seen for the people who people it.
Geoffrey Wade with Marissa McGowan as Aldonza; photo: provided
Aldonza and the Muleteers; photo: provided
Man of La Mancha can be seen at the Weston Playhouse Mainstage on the Village Green in Weston, Vermont through July 16. For information and tickets go to their website at www.westonplayhouse.org or call the box office at 802-824-5288.