‘Man of La Mancha’: Half a loaf

‘Man of La Mancha’: Half a loaf

(Top: Philip Hernandez (Cervantes/Don Quixote) and the cast of Man of La Mancha)

The famous 1966 musical “Man of La Mancha” opened on September 25 at the Westport Country Playhouse, and continues through October 14. The musical with book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion won the 1966 Tony for  best musical, as well as best score, best leading actor and best scenic design, beating out Sweet Charity, Mame, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and Superman.

The Westport Playhouse production, directed by Mark Lamos, with music direction by Andrew David Sotomayor and scenic design by Wilson Chin, attempts to duplicate that success on a pared down scale, and with limited success.

Briefly, the show tells the story of the Spanish playwright and poet Cervantes being imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition (this never happened) and being put “on trial” by the other prisoners. Cervantes tells the prisoners the tale of Alonso Quijano , a madman who fancies  himself to be the knight Don Quixote, using costumes from a trunk he had brought with him to costume himself and the other prisoners to tell the story.

In this production Phillip Hernandez is a commanding presence as Cervantes and Don Quixote, with a great baritone voice to match: singing 9 of the show’s songs. In fact he dominates the stage completely, unlike any of the other actors.

4_WCP_ManofLaMancha_GAdisa_TManna_byCRosegg_217Tony Manna, in the comic role of Sancho, got off to a bad start in his first song, the second verse of “I am I, Don Quixote,” coming in excruciatingly flat. And staying flat for the entire song. He redeemed himself, however, in “I Really Like Him,” showing off his excellent tenor voice. It would have been better if he had separated the words in the comic lines “You can barbecue my nose, Make a giblet of my toes.”

(Above: Gisela Adisa (Aldonza) and Tony Manna (Sancho Panza))

Gisela Adisa plays Aldonza (whom Quixote calls Dulcinea) is a commanding presence as well, acting well. But her singing made her sound like she was in some other show, since as soon as she left her chest voice, her voice turned into a nasal pop style that just didn’t fit the songs or the show. Her singing in “What Does He Want With Me” might have been better if she had held the notes out instead of cutting them all short, and in her second act “Aldonza,” she basically shouted what would have been better as a smoother ballad.

For some odd reason, the directors had the cast pronounce Dulcinea as DOOL-cinea rather than DULL-cinea. We assume there was a reason for that, but we don’t know what it was.

Particular praise goes to Carlos Encinias as the Padre, who also had a lovely tenor voice, and showed it well in the beautiful ballad, “To Each his Dulcinea.” Unfortunately, the music director added some tinkling keyboard accompaniment to this song that not only isn’t in the score, it isn’t even in the instrumentation.

You might ask if there were any basses singing in the company. Well, other than baritone Quixote, the only real bass role is the Innkeeper, played by tenor Michael Mendea, who sang part of his song “Hail Knight of the Woeful Countenance” up an octave. He did sing, well, however.

The entire cast is made up of 14 performers. Don Quixote, Aldonza and Sancho just play one role, but the remaining 11 take on a number of small roles, including being the chorus, identified in the script as Muleteers. This doesn’t work out too well, as the choral numbers sound weak and off-hand for the most part. The Broadway cast had 6 Muleteers as well as having separate actors for each role.

The set by Wilson Chin is suitably dark and depressing looking and has the expected staircase that lowers from above when prisoners arrive or leave and the guards come to harass the prisoners.

However, unlike the recommendation in the script, the orchestra and conductor are not on stage behind the actors. Instead the orchestra is split and placed in the second row of each side balcony, making the front row balcony seats less desirable. More to the point, the orchestra would overwhelm the cast, and the singers all wear body mikes, something I have never before seen at the Playhouse.

I was surprised how hollow the orchestra sounded at the beginning fanfare, and that they skipped the whole overture. But the reason soon became apparent: the orchestra was only 7 players: trumpet, trombone, French horn, reeds, guitar, string bass and percussion.  The score calls for more than twice those forces: Flute/Piccolo, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon/Clarinet, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 trombones, 2 timpani, 2 percussion players, 2 Spanish guitars and a string bass.

The two percussion players play traps (snare and bass drum), floor tom-tom, suspended cymbal, triangle, large floor tom-tom, another suspended cymbal, finger cymbals, tambourine, castanets, temple blocks, xylophone and bells.  I heard very few of these in this performance.

So, we had less than half an orchestra, and I would ask: “Did we really see ‘Man of La Mancha’ at all, or was it just a thin facsimile? Without all 6 brass players, the chords were never filled in. The full orchestra would have been only 16 players and would have easily fit in their pit or behind the set as recommended. And this is professional theater, with a top ticket price of $75.

The show that we saw had the usual Westport Playhouse professionalism and most of the audience enjoyed it. But it could have been so much better!

(Photos by Carole Rosegg for the Westport Country Playhouse.)

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