Earlier this year, there was an utterly charmless revival of “Man of La Mancha” in London’s West End that was set in modern day surroundings and featured in the title role an unpersuasive actor — Kelsey Grammer — who is famous for things other than musical theater.
This is the most recent example of a theater trying to do something different in its production of this iconic but tired and abundantly sentimental Broadway classic.
Fortunately, Porthouse Theater director Terri Kent opted to cast remarkable homegrown talent and a few Broadway-tested ringers in her gorgeous, traditional staging. The actors have no difficulty accessing the longing for goodness and nobility in Dale Wasserman's tale of a corrupt world. And music director Jonathan Swoboda and his 11-piece orchestra capture all the emotion and charm in Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s score, particularly the timeless anthem “The Impossible Dream” that helped win the show’s 1966 Tony Awards.
“Man of La Mancha” was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ early 17th-century novel “Don Quixote,” about an aged gentleman who declares himself a “knight errant” out to do battle for good and the love of a fair maiden. The musical begins with playwright and sometimes-tax collector Cervantes (the masterful Fabio Polanco) imprisoned and awaiting trial by the Inquisition. His fellow prisoners, led by “The Governor” (an intense but accessible Brian Chandler), put him on a mock trial before he appears before the Inquisition authorities for trying to levy taxes upon a countryside church.
Cervantes defends himself by enacting his novel. He imagines himself as the deluded would-be-knight Don Quixote, who Polanco plays with immense honesty and just the right level of pathos in his beautiful singing voice. He recruits his fiercely loyal manservant to play the Don’s squire, Sancho Panza (a thoroughly endearing Timothy Culver). And he has inmates take on various roles in his play, such as the Duke (Cody Hernandez), the Padre (Jay White), and the spirited tavern-girl (Genny Lis Padilla) who is brutalized by the townsmen but mistaken by the Don for the inspirational fair maiden he calls Dulcinea. Padilla’s gorgeous but delicate singing voice quiets the anger that burns in her character’s belly so that the meaning of the lyrics in songs like “What Does He Want of Me?” are perfectly realized.
Designers Patrick Ulrich and Cynthia R. Stillings make clever use of lighting, minimal scenery and props to take us back and forth from the depths of the dungeon that houses Cervantes to the magical countryside of La Mancha and the imagined world of Don Quixote.
While everyone on and behind the stage work hard to get the audience to realize and come to admire the title character’s idealism, Martin Cespedes’ choreography is the show’s most formidable weapon to get us to actually want to tilt at windmills. Much of the story is told through very physical dance that captures the machismo that drives most of its characters. But Cespedes is at his best reinforcing the romanticism that wins the day in this play.
Porthouse has put together a delightful evening of classic entertainment.