“Hear me now, oh, thou bleak and unbearable world! Thou art base and debauched as can be…and a Knight with his banners all bravely unfurled now hurls down his gauntlet to thee!”—Don Quixote, “Man Of La Mancha”
Categorically, one of the most iconic and celebrated names in the pages of classical literature–or the annals of theater, is that of “Don Quixote”—the madly idealistic ‘Knight’ at the center of Miguel De Cervantes immortal tale of the same name. Marching “through a dream that he’s in, covered in ‘Glory’ and rusty old tin”, Quixote tilts at windmills while fighting “for the right, without question or pause–willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause”, celebrating life not as it is, but rather as it should be. In 1964 the story was adapted for the musical stage where it quickly took Broadway by storm, garnering five Tony Awards—among them “Best Musical” and “Best Original Score”. Now “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in association with McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, present this inspiring musical as the fifth and final offering in their record-setting 2016-2017 season. With a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh, the direction here is by Glenn Casale with choreography supplied by Patti Colombo.
The trumpets ‘Blair” and the strings of the guitar “Roll”, as we’re transported back to Seville Spain in the latter part of the Sixteenth Century—at the pinnacle of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. There, into a murky dungeon enter two supremely unlucky figures—the illustrious “Poet of the Theater”, Miguel De Cervantes, who we learn had been working as a tax collector (“A temporary thing,” he explains, “to keep us from starvation!”) and his manservant who have both been called before the Grand Inquisitor for crimes against the church–notably for daring to issue a lien against a monastery (“The law says treat everyone equally’ he adds in his defense; “we only obeyed the law!”) To assuage the hostility of the imprisoned rabble, Cervantes persuades them not burn his prized manuscript that he’s been working on –by performing it for them, with them playing all the ancillary “Dramatis Personae”. “At worst it would beguile your time,” he pleads before portentously entreating, “May I set the stage? I shall impersonate a man—come, enter in to imagination and see him!” Thus he begins, describing “A country squire, no longer young—bony, hollow-faced with eyes that burn with the fire of inner-vision…with so much brooding, his brains finally dry up and he lays down the melancholy burden of sanity and conceives the strangest project ever imagined—to become a ‘Knight Errant’ and sally forth into the world to right all wrongs!” What follows is a ‘play within a play” recounting this ‘fatuous’ but deeply chivalric paladin, “Don Quixote”. Aided by his ever devoted (and faithfully indulgent) ‘Squire’, “Sancho Panza”, the pair take refuge at a humble country inn where Quixote becomes enamored (–“Pure and chaste from afar”) with a beautiful ‘Angel’ “Of Flame and Air” he calls “Dulcinea”. It is she who inspires his ‘glorious quest’; trouble is, she’s actually a reviled and world-weary (but still ferocious when crossed) Kitchen Wench, named “Aldonza” who declares “I have seen too many beds, but I have known too little rest!” She has little time or patience for his ‘gentle insanities’ which ‘rob her of anger and leave her despair’. The Odyssey they embark on will take Quixote into battle with an imaginary wraith-like foe—a Sorcerer called “The Enchanter”, who takes the form of “The Knight Of The Mirrors”—a comparably poisonous personage capable of reflecting stark, brutal reality as it truly is. Even so, through each misadventure our unlikely hero stalwartly finds triumph beyond tragedy and saintliness beyond setbacks, and before the final curtain falls, we ourselves just may ponder “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness really lies?”
Leigh and Darion’s sublime Spanish-inflected score is one that countless other musicals aspire to, featuring such unforgettable standards as “Dulcinea”, “Little Bird”, “I’m Only Thinking Of Him”, “Golden Helmet Of Mambrino” “The Dubbing”, and of course, the soul-stirring anthem to all that is the best in us: “The Impossible Dream”! Having fashioned a well-rounded and always entertaining production, Casale has also astutely packed his cast with some genuinely astonishing talents—vocally and dramatically. In addition, his direction bestows on us a more earthy and realistic production than has been seen recently, while making terrific use of humor to create greater relatability between his characters and the audience. This essentially, enhances our willingness to surrender to–and be moved by, their remarkable journey as it unfolds. His approach also keeps the goings-on from becoming too laborious or severe (until it becomes necessary plot-wise that they become so) while also pointing out just how smart and clever Wasserman’s book really is. For instance, his staging of the “Quijana family” segment prefacing the humorous reprise of their ode to self-preservation, “I’m Only Thinking Of Him” is especially enterprising, as the housekeeper, niece, her fiancée (the doctor), and the local parish priest all puzzle over what to do with this man whom they label ‘naught but an aging fool”, even as he, himself sits center stage bathed in a wash of ethereal white light. (“What a comfort to be sure that their motivations are so pure” the Padre intones.) Then, at the show’s climax, his enactment of Quixote’s fateful confrontation with “The Knight Of The Mirrors” is brilliantly conceived and appropriately dramatic.
Patti Colombo’s choreography also favors a more subtle, intrinsic approach, mostly appearing here and there in simpler doses, but when it does, it’s usually witty and wily–such as the ‘tap dancing’ horses in the opening, “I, Don Quixote”, or the sarcastically flirtatious ‘roundelay’ the Muleteers engage in as they mockingly take up the refrain of “Dulcinea”. Arguably the one ‘central’ dance number involves Quixote and Sancho’s encounter with a band of Moorish Gypsies, in which Colombo incorporates plenty of exotic gyrations from her lead dancer played by Jenna Wright, backed by a burley band who themselves regale with some fanciful high-stepping and even a few frenetic turns a whirling dervish would envy. Movement of a different (but just as noteworthy) kind are administered by John B. Williford who’s responsible for the show’s “Fight Choreography”. This is sixteenth century Spain remember, so there’s quite a bit of swashbuckling” to be expected, and in this regard, his contribution never disappoints! In fact, his ingenuity with the varying stage combat techniques is validated in back-to-back “skirmishes” directly after intermission: first, when our heroes clumsily fend off attacks from the disgruntled Muleteers in an episode called “The Combat”, then shortly thereafter in another more somberly branded ‘The Abduction”, when one of them goes from victor to victim. Although for a musical of this size there are relatively few big ‘group” undertakings, nonetheless, the ensemble too, have their moments to shine as well, such as with the first-class harmonies they demonstrate during “Little Bird” and then with the breath-taking final chorale of “The Impossible Dream” as Cervantes and his Servant are at last lead away to face their ultimate judgment.
Returning to the Southern California area in one of his most celebrated and Ovation award-winning roles, is Davis Gaines as the titular “Knight Of The Woeful Countenance”, “Don Quixote De La Mancha”! Few protagonists in modern musical theater have been granted such a plethora of sensational songs that illuminate the human spirit, and Davis takes full advantage of every opportunity they avail him to impress. Indeed, his tremendous talents are obvious right from the get go with his opening momentous chanson “I Don Quixote”; afterward, his “Dulcinea” is generously infused with sincerity that makes us believe the guileless fantasy in its words (even if the lass he’s singing it to, steadfastly doesn’t!) Subsequently, he quietly disarms his “Lady” as she challenges “Quixote” about his lofty “Quest”: “Why do you do these ’ridiculous’ things that you do?!” she questions in exasperation; “I hope to add some measure of grace to the world” he cites before commencing into the show’s iconic “The Impossible Dream” (which also serves as the Act break.) This is where Davis really raised the roof with his sensational near-operatic interpretation—while also infusing it with just a hint of dreaminess, thus playing up the profundity housed in its lyrics. The outcome was as moving and exhilarating as this number very much should be, and on opening night, the full throng of “First-Nighters” were cheering well beyond the house lights up which signal intermission!
“It is imperative that a Knight have a Lady” Quixote exhorts upon first glimpsing “Aldonza”; “For a Knight without a Lady is like a body without a soul.” As ‘the sovereign of his captive heart”, Nikki Crawford excels as that Low-born Maid whom he sees as the angelic ‘vision’ the old knight vows to devote his life to whom he calls “Dulcinea”. However hers, were told is “a tigress crouching in the dark” for whom “life has been unkind” (–so she requires payment in advance!) “The worst crime is being born!” she spits at one point countering Quixote’s relentless high-minded musings; “For that you get punished for your whole life!” Yet, Crawford gives us a refreshingly well-rounded characterization, evincing enough of the tough, bitter woman we expect—but also surprisingly, one not beyond hope (or at least capable of hoping for better.) In playing “Aldonza” as a slightly less hostile, and even more honestly curious, she allows a glimpse of vulnerability that’s underlying her outward veneer of –and when she sings, oh, what potent money notes she resounds!) Crawford also endowed with a dynamic voice reminiscent of a young Lena Horne, Billie Holiday or Judy Garland. Her opening salvo, “It’s All The Same” is a superlative achievement right off, while her “What Does He Want Of Me?” is imbued with a sultry smoothness. These hints of empathy also make her later ballad, “Aldonza” much more heart-wrenching when she conveys the impassioned and excruciatingly poignant: “You have shown me the sky, but what good is the sky to a creature who’ll never do better than crawl?!” she screeches at her “Champion” accusingly; “Blows and abuse I can take and give back again—tenderness I cannot bear!” For as much as we feel her bitterness and revulsion at this point, such is Crawford’s strong acting capabilities—specifically acting through song, she quickly makes us “believe” all over again shortly following with her startlingly affecting reprises of “Dulcinea” and “The Impossible Dream”.
Roland Rusinek too, has an awesome voice and gifted comic timing—both of which he puts into excellent service in the role of Quixote’s faithful servant “Sancho Panza”. Vocally, he makes this clear commencing with his stanzas of “I, Don Quotes’ where he exults, “I’ll tell all the world, I’m his squire—I’m his friend.” He further stands-out when handling “The Missive”. One of the lesser known inclusions to the score, here Rusinek brings a distinct comic flavor and vitality, which leads into the correspondingly superbly delivered “I Really Like Him” wherein “Sancho” meekly tries to explain to Aldonza why he continues to “follow his master to ‘til the end’: “There’s nothing I can do—chop me up for onion stew, still I’ll yell to the sky, though I can’t tell you why, that I LIKE him!” Post-intermission, Roland charms all over again (and when it’s most needed,) with the 11 O’clock mood-lightener, “A Little Gossip”. Moreover, Shannon Stoeke is also a significant presence as “Dr. Sanson Carrasco” (whom it’s observed, “Carries his own importance as if he’s afraid of breaking it.) He also portrays a denizen of the dungeon called “The Duke” who prosecutes Cervantes’ ‘trial’ that frames the story: “This place, ‘La Mancha’—what is it like?” he questions Cervantes, causing several onlookers suggest it must be like a desert or a wasteland; “Which apparently ‘grows’ Lunatics,” The Duke snickers. “I would say rather…’Men Of Illusion”,” the Playwright replies trying to fortify his courage. When Dr. Carrasco, who’s accompanied by the Padre, appear at the Inn he attempts to once more accost our Hero with the reality of his life: “These are the facts!” he asserts; “Facts are the enemy of truth” the old man replies (—to considerable applause from opening night’s attendees!)
As Quixote’s Niece, “Antonia”, Michaelia Leigh also is in ownership of a lilting soprano voice and a fresh-faced, salubrious stage quality evocative of a young Ann Blyth. Along with Jenny McGlinchey–who herself has a solid song-styling and exceptional expertise, as the “Housekeeper” they make “I’m Only Thinking Of Him” a rousing Act One crowd-pleaser—first, as a duet, then as a buoyant trio when joined by “The Padre”. (“The innocent pay for the guilty” the Housekeeper stresses over reports of her Master’s latest exploits.) As that same “man of the cloth”, Rich Hebert initially earns copious laughs for his manic antics, appearing as one of the prison’s ‘daffier’ occupants who is pressed into service as the Quijana family’s spiritual advisor. Yet he quickly earns just as substantial a slice of admiration enthralling us before long with his sympathetic character and majestic voice! This he puts to venerable use, interpreting the meditative “To Each His Dulcinea” and his part in “I’m Only Thinking Of Him”, before adding extra gravitas to the show’s final moments with “The Psalm”. Not to be overlooked either is Gregory Butler, who similarly does a remarkable job in the dual role of “The Governor” of the prison block where Cervantes and his manservant have found themselves incarcerated and, once their tale has been instigated, “The Innkeeper” of the humble establishment “Quixote” and “Panza” believe to be a castle where their gallant services may be put to good use. “Madmen are the children of God” The Innkeeper forbearingly reminds his wife upon Quixote’s entrance into the courtyard as the old Knight tries to ‘unscrew’ his rusty sword (a running gag throughout—the consequence of his prior ‘tilting at windmills’ thinking that they’re sinister Giants in disguise!) Butler too, has an incredible, robust and sonorous baritone voice–but you have to wait a bit to hear it. Happily though, once you do it’s well worth it once we learn that our would-be hero’s “Dubbing” can only be performed by another “Knight” or “Lord” of a castle (such as he imagines Butler’s Lodgings to be.) This precipitates his dispensing the ‘August” duties—not to mention launching the second act in grand style, by leading the jovial interlude, “Knight Of The Woeful Countenance”. Laudable support is also furnished by Jeff Skowron in his brief turn as the bespectacled and bemused “Barber”, who arrives on the scene–something akin to the reformation era’s answer to a mild-mannered nebbish, when he stumbles into the courtyard and is told his shaving basin is, in essence, a magic “Golden Helmet” that Quixote must possess! The resulting ‘tuner’, “Golden Helmet Of Mambrino” is a likeable, laughable, success for all involved.
Stephen Gifford’s delightfully gothic (and just a touch foreboding) multi-level set design offers the perfect backdrop for the various scenes to play out against—whether they be in the prison, the courtyard of the country Inn, or out on the open road. Particularly effective is the shiver-inducing draw-bridge like ‘staircase’ which lowers and lifts at key moments whenever the fearsome officers of the Inquisition come to take a prisoner off to their day of judgment. Likewise, the Lighting Design by Steven Young bespeaks a wide and evocative range–whether from the sullen shadows and ersatz torchlight—occasionally even employing hues like moss-green and pallid purple for the prison, to the summery amber “sunlight” of the Inn, and lovely sunset and twilight effects. For those relentlessly intense moments in the stable when Aldonza faces her multitude of attackers, he bathes the stage in lurid red adding tension and fiery impact to an already fierce and forceful scene! Also making their mark are the Costume Designs by Leon Wiebers—which themselves range from the dusty rags of the imprisoned peasantry to ‘statelier’ sixteenth century apparel of the landed gentry–including the dazzling armor of the ominous “Knight Of The Mirrors” and his attendant retinue. Each are fittingly “topped off “by Katie McCoy’s Hair, Make-up and Wig designs.
In these days of the modern types of madness that seem to surround us, “Man Of La Mancha” with its gentle reminder that things can be different if we too, dare to ‘dream the impossible dream’ in our own everyday lives, couldn’t be more germane–or its message more resonant for today’s audiences! After ‘previewing’ on Friday, June 2nd, 2017, this “holy endeavor that’s now to begin’” officially opened on Saturday, June 3rd, where it is slated to run through Sunday, June 25th, 2017, at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts”, located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada. Show-times are 7:30 PM on Wednesdays & Thursdays; 8:00 PM on Fridays; 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM on Saturdays, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. In addition, the performance on Saturday, June 17th at 2:00 PM will be “Open Captioned” while there will be an “ASL Interpreted” performance on Saturday, June 24th at 2:00 PM. Special “Talkbacks” with the cast and creative team will be on Wednesday, June 7th, and Wednesday, June 21st. Tickets may be obtained at “The La Mirada Theatre’s” website, located on the web at: http://www.lamiradatheatre.com , or via phone by calling “The La Mirada Theatre Box Office” at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. (Student, Senior and Group discounts are also available for this engagement with reduced-price “Student Rush” Tickets available for the first 15 performances.)
Productions Stills By Michael Lamont, Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Glenn Casale, Patti Colombo, Jeff Rizzo & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2017 Production Of “Man Of La Mancha” For Making This Story Possible.