By James Johnson
This weekend marked the last chance to catch the Cape Fear Regional Theatre’s outstanding 2015-2016 season opener, “Man of La Mancha.” The musical, which was written by Dale Wasserman, with music and lyrics by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, respectively, is inspired by the literary classic, “Don Quixote,” by 17th century author, Miguel de Cervantes.
Cervantes’ book follows the adventures of its title character, Don Quixote, a man whose obsession with tales of chivalry, inspires him to take up the life of a knight. In the musical, author Cervantes is captured by the Spanish inquisition, and must tell his fellow prisoners the story of his delusional knight, in order to earn back his few belongings from the prisoners, including the very valuable manuscript to what would become his masterpiece. The other prisoners, are used as characters in his story, and soon are swept up in it.
As far as framing devices go, using Cervantes’ stay in a Spanish prison, appeared at first to be an inconsequential gimmick, but upon further reflection, turns out to be a stroke of storytelling genius, as it further demonstrates the power and even the importance, of escapism, when faced with a hopeless situation, as the prisoners, like Don Quixote himself, are swept up in the fiction.
Everyone in the cast is forced to where multiple hats, playing both character’s in Cervantes’ story, and fellow prisoners. Both Cervantes and Quixote are played by Patrick Oliver Jones, a Birmingham, Alabama native, with a resume a mile long and deceptively good looks. Upon seeing previews of the show, I had thought Quixote was miscast, as Jones’ appearance is more “handsome every-man,” than the usual depictions of Quixote as a lanky, balding, crazed old man. However, Jones isn’t just playing Quixote, he also has to play Quixote’s creator, who is portrayed in the show as a charismatic dreamer, a showman, who when pressed, can transform himself into whatever character is needed for the sake of the story. In this way, Jones’ casting makes perfect sense.
Jones plays Quixote as an irrepressible optimist, but never as a fool, and his delusions never feel like a true madness, so much as a form of stubborn idealism. Of course, this is a musical, and Jones’ smooth vocals are just as impressive as his acting chops. Before seeing this production, I’d always assumed I wouldn’t care for it, due in part to having heard the show’s most popular song,”The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” which champion’s the show’s overall theme of aspiring toward greatness even in the face of impossible odds, and as Quixote’s own personal mission statement. Within the context of the story however, the song is rousing, and all of those things about it which I dismissed as overly sentimental and silly, are given reason for existing. Of course it is overly sentimental. That’s kind of the point.
The counter argument to Quixote’s worldview, is embodied in the character of Aldonza, played by Broadway actress Leenya Rideout. Rideout’s Aldonza has a life most similar to that of the prisoners Cervantes is trying to entertain. She is a prostitute who has been mistreated and beaten by just about every man she has come in contact with. Only Quixote, who finds Aldonza in a rowdy roadside Inn that he mistakes for a castle, sees her as a person of value. He dubs her “Dulcinea.”
Rideout gives probably the most moving performance in the show, and in many ways, becomes the story’s true hero. Rideout has an unquestionably powerful voice, however during the performance I saw, it sounded as if there were two songs in which she was struggling to maintain breathe-control (many of her songs involve her being thrown around like a ragdoll, so this isn’t entirely surprising).
Both Cervantes and Quixote seem to have the same sidekick, in the hapless, yet irrationally loyal, Sancho, played by CFRT regular, and Sweet Tea Shakespeare founder, Jeremy Fiebig.
Fiebig is wonderfully cast, doing what he seems to specialize in, playing a large man with the personality of a dainty wallflower. He speaks softly, using his hands, as if carefully plucking out his words on an invisible harp. Fiebig finds plenty of ways to use subtle movements to squeeze more comedy out of each situation, including one bit in which he and Quixote are supposed to be holding an allegedly enchanted helmet up in the air, only Sancho’s arms can’t quite reach as high as Quixote’s, so instead he flails pathetically in the direction of the object.
Another example of an actor who seems to have been cast for his comedic chops, is Paul Wilson, who most recently played the role of Lazar Wolf in the CFRT’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Wilson plays both the overwhelmed Innkeeper, and the prison’s self-proclaimed Governor. The Governor is an impartial judge of Cervantes’ story, who at first seems like a potential antagonist, but later becomes Cervantes’ most credible defender. The Innkeeper meanwhile, is more of a comedic straight man, and seems willing to humor Quixote, until the point the deluded man becomes more of a potential danger than entertaining distraction.
Wilson, thanks in part to a gravely voice, always presents a quiet strength on stage, which unfortunately, I could not say for actor Zechariah Williams, as the story’s only true villains, The Duke / Dr. Carrascol.
Both The Duke, the prosecutor of the prison’s kangaroo court, and Dr. Carrascol, a therapist who has decided that Quixote’s delusions have made him dangerous, are only really guilty of being cynics, which contrasts greatly with Quixote’s worldview of optimism in the face of everything. Williams is a talented performer, with a long list of credits to his name, but I felt that he seemed uncomfortable in the roles and lacked some conviction in the things he was saying. It may have been his youthfulness, or kind face, but something about Williams, did not feel entirely committed, or authoritative.
All-in-all, “La-Mancha” has a strong cast, with even smaller roles, such as a traveling Barber, played by Zane Burkhardt, receiving top notch talent. Demonstrating how much can be done with a little, actor Gabriel Rodrigues, playing the Padre and a character named Jose, manages to steal just about every scene he is in, with a nervous energy that could be felt every time he opened his mouth. At some point Rodrigues is tasked with playing a cross-dressing Moorish gypsy, who occasionally pops out of a suitcase during the song “Moorish Dance,” which had me grinning from ear-to-ear.
Speaking of the “Moorish Dance,” can we talk about dancing? For one, actress Taylor Craft (most recently seen in the CFRT’s production of “Avenue Q”), who plays multiple roles throughout the production, including the Moorish Girl, is apparently part snake. I really wish there was some video of her Moorish Girl dance available online, as I don’t feel any words could do the dance justice.
Craft is one of the most reliable area performers working, and I would really like to see her carry a show in the near future.
When one thinks “Man of La Mancha,” I don’t think choreography tends to spring to mind, however I feel that choreographer Billy Bustamante and fight director David McClutchey’s contributions to this show, will forever make me grateful for having seen the show live as opposed to simply watching the 1972 film adaptation of the same name.
Speaking of the visceral experience of live theatre, I can’t not mention the terrific music direction done by Joanna Li. Years ago, there was a time I had heard that the CFRT had flirted with the idea of using canned music for performances (I think they used this for performances of “Oliver Twist” and “High School Musical 2,” though I can’t be certain), and I am so delighted that this never took hold. As I had said earlier, I had gone into “La Mancha” disinterested in the show’s music, due to having heard it out of context, however seeing it performed live has made me a convert. The entire band deserves applause.
Christopher Tulysewski’s scenic design and David Castaneda’s lighting design, do a terrific job of bringing this story to life, taking the audience from the inside of a dingy underground dungeon, the colorful streets of a small Spanish village.
Lisa Tireman’s costume design is also worth mentioning. Everything looked worn, and lived in, while remaining versatile enough to allow the cast to portray multiple characters.
Director Tom Quaintance has so far been a gift that keeps on giving to the area theatre community, and I honestly can’t wait to see what the rest of the season holds for us. (I have been looking forward to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” since the moment it was announced. Pressure’s on).
Note: I was joined by my roommates, Jaymie and Tracy Baxley, who have seen less theatre than myself, but enough that the following quote still carries with it, some weight: “This was the best musical I have ever seen.” – Jaymie Baxley. His wife, Tracy, concurred, and had been moved to tears. I don’t think it’ll be as difficult for me to drag my friends out to the theatre next time, and for that, I owe the CFRT a great deal of gratitude.
4 **** out of five.