Man of La Mancha

Tuesday November 07, 06
by Patrick Shannon,

 Man of La Mancha “Oh no, not more kitsch and cheap sentiment!” was the response I got when I called theater savvy friends in Manhattan to share a performance with me of the hit musical and at the time the longest running Broadway show, Cats, during the last month of its “million year run.” I was probably the only critic in the world that had not yet seen it. “If I have to listen to one more version of Memories,” they all said with a condescending laugh, “I might as well go see a rerun of The Sound of Mucous aka as The Sound of Money!” That’s what it’s now called by sophisticated Manhattanites. Every one I called was sarcastic, and slammed the phone down in my ear. Well I love cats in general, so I went alone; and I loved it, loved it! And I love the song Memories no matter who sings it, anytime even to this day. Another less successful, but popular for a while, semi-hit Broadway musical of 1965, Man of La Mancha with a book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion - all based on the novel of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, has suffered a similar fate as regards its hit song, The Impossible Dream, also known as The Quest.

Some local critics told me, “What, not that again! I’d sooner get drunk in a gay bar and listen to Patsy Cline sing Crazy or Tammy Wynnette Stand By Your Man on a tinny jute box for a week,” they all replied sneeringly. But they came to Man of La Mancha and WHAT A SURPRISE! The emotionally charged, and beautifully done version of Man of La Mancha recently produced by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society at the Westwego Performing Arts Theatre was given a totally new life that throbbed with the beauty of one its themes, the triumph of mankind’s spirit over great adversity, based upon the epic novel of Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha. In sixteenth century Spain, Miguel de Cervantes (Richard Hutton) poet, playwright, and part-time actor, has been arrested, along with his Manservant (“Uncle” Wayne Daigrepont), by the Spanish Inquisition. They are accused of having presented an entertainment insulting and offensive to the Catholic Church. Inside the waiting room of a vast and huge dungeon into which they have been cast, the other prisoners gang up on the two men. Led by the Governor (Alan Payne) a mock trial is held, with the intention of stealing or burning their possessions contained in a large trunk. Cervantes only wishes to desperately save a manuscript he carries with him. With the help from the trunk that contain props, makeup, and costumes; and with the assistance of his Manservant a musical play is staged. With the participation of the other prisoners (mostly common criminals), an unusual defense for the manuscript is presented, the story of Don Quixote - The Man of La Mancha. The house was nearly full the night we saw it and almost every eye was a little tearful when the final curtain fell. And that’s what can happen even to “cheap sentiment creations.” Such a familiar show, with an iconic song, can become theatrically luminous when the brilliant genius of such people as Director Brandt Blocker can put his magic touch to the task, or when uber Maestro and all around Superman of the Performing Arts, Dennis Assaf, directed a virile 11 piece orchestra featuring guitar master Mike Vila who was able to decorate the Broadway musical sass and brass section with delicate touches of tasteful Iberian auditory spice. (It is almost as if some of the orchestrations were inspired by the beautiful film version with Peter O’Toole, James Coco, and Sophia Loren.) That’s what happens when a male lead such as Richard Hutton is so inspired that he breaks every heart with his touching, searing performance as Miguel de Cervantes, and celestial singing as Don Quxiote; and Cervantes’ Manservant and Don Quixote’s proverb filled sidekick Sancho Panza is played by “Uncle” Wayne Daigrepont with perfect comedic timing and sensitivity. That’s what happens in such a glowing production when we get an Aldonza, a common whore and kitchen wench, played with such power and final sweetness by the wonderful actress Brandi Cotogno, who sings like a seasoned star of the American stage. It is with great bravery she becomes the Dulcinea she always was. Other performers added their great style and talents to this touching show: great character acting as the Padre by Wayne Gosoulin (whose beautiful voice illuminated the song To Each His Dulcinea) and the angelic vocalizations of Kristen Marchiafava’s pretty Antonia - Alonso Quijana’s niece, a man who has read and studied so many stories about brave errant knights that in a half-mad and confused state, he believed himself to be a noble and brave knight and re-named himself Don Quixote de la Mancha; Alan Paynes finely etched roles as the Governor and the Innkeeper; Jimmy deMontluzin’s merry bumbling barber and the ominous Captain of the Inquisition; and the handsome Eric Lincoln leading the chorus of Muleteers (the harmonious and macho: Armando L. Leduc (Pedro, the Head Muleteer), Shawn Champange, Hunter McGregor, Jeff Ramirez, and Steve Kubick) in a vividly lovely rendition of Little Bird, Little Bird. Susan Barrett Smith was memorable as Maria, the practical, sweetly scolding wife of the Innkeeper; and Paul Bello showed off his fine talents as the Duke, the logical Dr. Carrasco - Antonia’s fianc‚, and the frightening Knight of the Mirrors. Rene Balencie Saussaye’s role as the Housekeeper added a touch of honest homely humor to the show but with a bit of sexual/ romantic fantasy/imagination in her character. Carrie Daigle as a Horse and Moorish dancer, and Alexis Bruzza as a Horse kept beautifully in step with the choreography of Casey Leigh Thompson. All of these splendidly balanced and blended performances worked well on a strong solid set with an epic operatic look in the style of Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi with the scenic design of twin sisters Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay: a great arch looming over stage right with a stairway stage left, these were given a sad hopeless dungeon feeling by Scenic Artist and Lighting Designer Melissa Oliver. This oppressive feeling was assisted by the technical artistry of Stewart Becnel’s sound Sound Design. Other assets were the contributions of Richard D. Whitney as Technical Director and Scenic artist; and of Billy Schill as Production Stage Manager. The costumes of M. Brady McKellar were fresh and in keeping with the feel of the musical. This Man of La Mancha rose high above the level of cheap sentiment and settled into the stratospheric levels of high art and heartfelt theatre. And that’s what it’s really all about. A cathartic experience comparable to mystical art.