In 1964, Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam produced the world premiere of the musical version of Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote. Man of La Mancha went on to Broadway in 1965 where it won Best Musical and has since been revived on the Great White Way four additional times. The novel, written in two parts in 1605 and 1615, is considered one of the most important books ever written. Dale Wasserman’s musical is considered a landmark of theatre.
My first and only encounter with Man of La Mancha was Goodspeed’s revival in 2000. Dark and claustrophobic, the production made me think little of the show and its score. Aside from the title song, the sweet tune “Dulcinea” and, of course, the anthemic “The Quest (The Impossible Dream),” I found little to recommend in the show. How fortunate that Vincent Cardinal’s current revival at UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre has made me reevaluate and develop a new appreciation for the piece.
The show begins and ends (with a few interruptions along the way) with a framing device of Cervantes himself being jailed as a part of the Spanish Inquisition. A tax collector and poet, he is a stoic presence in what appears to be a den of thieves. Awaiting his moment in the Inquisatorial hot seat, his fellow prisoners put him on mock trial. Cervantes decides to prove his worthiness to the inmates by putting on a prison theatrical recounting the exploits of his knight errant, Don Quixote.
My impression from the Goodspeed revival, that the Cervantes play-within-a-play structure is rather unnecessary, still holds. The charm of the madman-cum-knight storyline is the center of the piece and there is little at stake for Cervantes as a character. Fortunately for Cardinal and the audience, Cervantes/Don Quixote turns out to be a knight in shining armor with Terrence Mann.
Mann’s transformation from the clear-headed Cervantes to the muddle-headed Quixote is a marvel. As the knight, Mann delights while breaking your heart. While everyone around him, minus his trusty vassal Sancho Panza, tries to shatter his delusions, we opt to believe in the truths to which he clings: love, nobility, chivalry. While his “Impossible Dream” was not quite as powerful as one would hope, Mann’s delivery of “Dulcinea” and “Man of La Mancha” were top-notch.
As Sancho Panza, Richard Ruiz is similarly first-rate. His lovely tenor and indulgent countenance make for an ideal sidekick for Quixote. Alix Paige, who played Eliza Doolittle opposite Mann’s Henry Higgins in last season’s My Fair Lady, makes for a fiery and fierce Aldonza, the misguided object of Quixote’s affections. Where I was not completely taken with her performance as Eliza, Paige commands the stage and more than holds her own against Mann and the hoard of bare-chested men who abuse her.
The secondary roles are similarly strong. As the Padre, the cleric who serves as Quixote’s spiritual guide, James Barry proves to be funny, sweet and poignant, particularly in his performance of “To Each His Dulcinea.” Joey Barreiro, so good in last season’s Guys and Dolls, provides flamenco-tinged vocals and guitar with aplomb as Anselmo. Once again, he proves one to watch.
Steven Hayes, who dialed down his zaniness to play an innocent Horton in Seussical last summer, ratchets up the hamminess for his brief turn as the Barber. Although filled with comic bits and facial expressions that channel Bert Lahr and Paul Lynde (with a touch of Charles Nelson Reilly thrown in for good measure), the performance jars with the rest of the production.
The ensemble of various prisoners, guards, nobility and whores all work hard throughout, particulary on the lovely choreography by Cassie Abate. Cardinal shows that he knows how to stage large scenes with clarity and intimate scenes with focus. The energy never flags and the show, overall, is beguiling. Make it your quest to see this Man of La Mancha.