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Better for This

by Kathryn Geurin on November 22, 2011

Man of La Mancha
By Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, music by Mitch Leigh, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill Capital Repertory Theater, Through Dec. 17

Photo by Joe Schulyer

Man of La Mancha, the Tony Award-winning musical classic of Impossible Dreams currently on stage at Capital Repertory Theater, finds author-actor-tax-collector Miguel Cervantes and his manservant tossed in a dungeon by the Spanish Inquisition for foreclosing on a monestary. Upon their arrival, the dingy amalgam of murderers and thieves already imprisoned attacks the duo and puts them on mock trial to fight for their possessions—a steamer trunk full of props and costumes, and a manuscript. As their defense, Cervantes mounts an impromptu production, featuring his fellow prisoners as players, of his yet-unfinished masterpiece Don Quixote, the story of the knight errant, itself an imagining of his tale’s hero, Alonso Quijana.

It is an onion of a story—layer upon layer of reality, and madness and imagination blurring into some larger truth. The prisoners play actors playing characters in another rugged world, who in turn are often humoring Quihana by playing roles in his knightly fantasy. Done right, it is as funny as it heartrending, as provocative as it is inspiring. And here, Capital Rep gets it right.

While the gloriously inflated fantasy world of Don Quixote often takes center stage in Man of La Mancha, this production highlights the dim grit of reality. The fantasy comes to life in a very real way, but, in the small theater, with a spare, multitalented ensemble often performing their own accompaniment onstage, the rough stucco walls and iron-barred windows of set designer Roman Tatarowicz’s prison feel very much present throughout, the fun and splendor of the escape temporary.

The whole complex escapade is deftly staged and paced with tightly-reigned energy by director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, who has assembled an exemplary cast and a unified vision for her creative team. Stephen Quandt’s subtle lighting shifts between warm golden glows and icy blues and greens that carry the characters between layers of fantasy. Anna Lacivita’s simple costuming transforms tattered shifts to gowns and gasmasks into mules with onstage slight of hand.

Under the musical direction of Adam Jones, the oft-heard music is fresh and stirring, in number after number. Particular highlights are the intricate quartet “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” Act 1 closer “To Each His Dulcinea,” beautifully rendered by David Sutton as the Padre, and Christopher Vettel’s resonant and hilarious nightshirt-clad “Dubbing.”

Local Broadway vet Kevin McGuire gives a packed but humble and exquisitely human performance in a leading role that is so often a star vehicle. He balances the roles of Cervantes, Quihana and Don Quixote with a delicacy that keeps each fragile and distict, but reveals their underlying sameness with vulnerable radiance. Even the showstopping numbers are controlled and intimate in his beautiful renditions. His Cervantes and Don Quixote—and the production as a whole—shine the brighter for his restraint.

While Ann Fraser Thomas’s performance as Aldonza/Dulcinea would have benefited from a more subtle blend of her hardness and tenderness, the production’s main downfall is the muleteers, who leer cartoonishly at Aldonza, but never feel truly threatening, particularly after a Stoogesque fight scene that is the only time the show slips into broad slapstick.

It’s a modest complaint in a, for the most part, beautifully crafted production.

When, at the show’s end, as Cervantes is led into the horror of the inquisition, the prisoners raise the melody of the poet’s quest against the slamming door of oppression, this Man of La Mancha resonates with the powerful message it should: that the one can inspire the many, that art can ignite hope in the depths of despair, and that, when it does, the world will be better for this.