John P. McCarthy
Associate CT/NY Critic
1965’s “Man of La Mancha,” the “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” of musicals, can be read as a bridge between the countercultural tumult of the 1960s and the naval-gazing tendencies that characterized the “Me” generation of the 1970s. It’s also easy to see why its pliant message about the power of the imagination to uplift and transform resonates with artists—or anyone willing to fight for the right to self-expression and, crucially, prepared to risk rejection, ruination and despair in pursuit of their personal vision.
In mounting TheatreWorks’ new production of “Man of La Mancha,” it appears as though director Francis A. Daley has taken this message quite literally insofar as he seems to have given everyone in the acting ensemble free rein to strut his or her artistic stuff—to soar as high and as far as possible. Evidently, the same is true of the various designers responsible for the fantastic set, costumes and make-up, as well as the three musicians who play unobtrusively on stage or just off. Yet with one major exception (about which below) their contributions never distract or detract. The same can’t be said about the actors’ efforts, primarily the work done by the chorus and those limning secondary roles.
The problem is not that the performances are bad per se; there’s no paucity of talent on display. Actually, there’s too much of it. It feels like the actors have been indulged, as in allowed to overdo it. They pour it on too thick and take their time doing so. Ironically, the show has a soporific effect owing to the overzealous attempts of cast members to squeeze the most out of every moment. Because they convey in three or four beats what can be expressed in one, the pacing is off. “Slow down and take your time,” might well have been the most frequent director’s note.
Not only is the result prolix, it occasions much scene chewing from the get-go, a desultory and somewhat confusing prologue. When a group laugh is called for, the chorus emits a joint cackle that’s louder and longer than necessary. When asked to stomp flamenco-style, boot heels are driven into the floor with excessive aggression. And the default mode of signaling emotion is caterwauling. In sum, no matter how peripheral the line or bit of business, ensemble members are prone to add “Look at me!” to their delivery. And again, it’s mostly a question of degree since the raw acting is generally pretty good and of-a-piece stylistically—just intrusively over-the-top.
The three principals are less susceptible to this criticism. In the dual parts of the writer Cervantes and the knight-errant Don Quixote—whose tale the former relates to his fellow prisoners while awaiting the Inquisitor in a Seville dungeon—Frederick Rueck is a commanding physical and vocal presence. He doesn’t always sidestep the ponderous and overly sincere traps built into the role of Quixote, but he doesn’t get bogged down in them either. John Lino Ponzini puts a droll mensch’s spin on the cracks issued by Quixote’s companion Sancho; he’s the only actor who underplays, and his light touch extends to his pleasant singing. Elizeth Brito brings a shrill, world-weary rhythm, along with appropriately melodic tones, to the prostitute Aldonza whom Quixote fancies is a chaste noblewoman.
As for the one design element that proves to be a distraction, the centerpiece of Leif Smith’s set is a staircase that’s emblematic of what’s amiss overall. Beautifully hewn and operated using what must be a fairly sophisticated motorized pulley system (to insure the safety of the performers below), this handsome case of dark wooden rungs is suspended above the playing area upstage right and is lowered into the dungeon on three occasions. Unfortunately, because it moves at a glacial rate the effect is almost comic when it’s deployed for the third time during the climax. The craftsmanship and effort involved are impressive, but as with much of the acting, the execution leaves something to be desired since it takes the audience out of the show.
To be fair to the company, “Man of La Mancha” (book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion) is material that lends itself to the pitfalls of this production. And it doesn’t help that the score is performed by a trio consisting of acoustic guitar (Musical Director Morgan Kelsey), flute (Ryan Asbridge) and percussion (Edward Murphy). Their playing is lovely and fluid, especially on the quieter songs which various cast members render with marked skill and sensitivity. But the relatively underpowered musical accompaniment contributes to the lackadaisical pacing and the actor’s overcompensation because it doesn’t drive the show as forcefully as it might. In effect it creates a vacuum that actors—unsurprisingly and probably subconsciously—feel compelled to fill.
Don Quixote’s modus vivendi is described by one character as “Stupidity masquerading as virtue,” and the pitfalls of his philosophy are not papered over in the musical. He defends his approach by proclaiming, “Facts are the enemy of truth!” which triggers a big laugh given our current political environment. But of course it’s not proffered as a justification for lying, let alone tyranny. It’s meant to encourage individuals to chase their dreams and visions in a less public context, one in which there’s much less chance of harming others. That said, actions have real consequences in the artistic realm, even at the community theatre level. So by all means, tilt at windmills and unleash the fruits of your labors onto the world. Yet if you want others to pay attention and appreciate your efforts, let alone to be changed by them, it’s wise to do so with more haste—in other words, mindful not to tax the patience of your audience no matter how personally fulfilling your endeavors may be.
Man of La Mancha
“Man of La Mancha” is directed by Francis A. Daley and stars Frederick Rueck, John Lino Ponzini, Elizeth Brito, Viv Berger, Roger Grace and Rob Pawlikowski. Musical direction by Morgan Kelsey, scenic design by Leif Smith, costume design by Terry Hawley, lighting design by Peter Petrino, and Katie Barr is the producer.
“Man of La Mancha” runs at TheatreWorks New Milford, 5 Brookside Avenue, through January 5, 2019. Friday & Saturday 8pm, Sunday 2pm. Running Time: 190 Minutes
Tickets are $30 and seating is reserved. Visit theatreworks.us or call 1-860-350-6863 for more information.