Man of La Mancha

by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 24, 2009

Man of La Mancha

For a 45-year-old musical, based on a 50-year-old made-for-TV play, based on a 400-year-old novel, Man of La Mancha holds up pretty well. Cervantes' story is timeless, and the play-within-a-play element added by Dale Wasserman lends it a sense of urgency. True, the musical adaptation by Joe Darion (Lyrics) and Mitch Leigh (Music) can feel corny and dated from time to time, but in the hands of an able director and strong cast, the show's age is all but invisible. The Ridgewood Arts Foundation's production, which recently opened at the Theater at the Center in Munster, IN, is a great example of just such a production.

The deft handling is hardly surprising given that director William Pullinsi helmed a staggering 54-week run of the at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse from 1969 to 1970. Even at the remove of 40 years, one might wonder if Pullinsi is doomed to continue directing the version from that epic run. If this is the case. he's wise-for the most part-in having found his groove and stuck with it.

I did find the frequency with which the actors played lines directly to the audience to be a bit much (including the alteration of Aldonza's song from "What Do You Want of Me?" into "What Does He Want of Me?", which I have seen in another production and did not like any better on that occasion). Although that minor criticism is likely a matter of personal taste, it contributed to a tendency to overplay some of the comedy (most notably in the scene with the Barber). This led to a small handful of moments in which the production felt a touch dumbed down and dated.

A larger issue with the production, which I note only presents itself rarely, are some missteps in pacing. The blocking for "I'm Only Thinking of Him" is unnecessarily busy Worse, though, is the painfully slow and clumsy blocking-cum-choreography of the fight before Quixote is dubbed the Knight of the Woeful Countenance. It's impolite to dwell, so I'll just say that stage directors should leave the ladder fights to Jackie Chan.

It is unfair to blame the final and most serious pacing problem entirely on Pullinsi: He certainly inherits one of the most awkward act breaks in history, coming as it does immediately after an on-stage gang rape. However, the awkward mixture of realistic fight choreography and dance drag out this painful, difficult-to-stage scene, making the ill-advised use of jaunty entre acte music even more jarring. Furthermore, although I know the Moorish dance is included in the book, I have never before seen it included in a production. I can see why now, as it pulls the audience entirely out of the terrible moment of the play's climax.

But overall, Pullinsi's direction is brisk, skillful, and makes great use of Ann N. Davis's set. Cervantes is conveniently scripted to enter the prison with all his costumes and stage properties. The trunk itself, along with a handful of removable panels placed artfully around the set, makes for a convenient set piece. Throughout the play, Cervantes fishes out neatly wrapped parcels to his players as he casts and directs his unfinished work on the fly.

True, the musical adaptation . . . can feel corny and dated from time to time, but in the hands of an able director and strong cast, the show's age is all but invisible. The Ridgewood Arts Foundation's production . . . is a great example of ju

The action takes place on a circular thrust with small staircases providing access to the aisles. The rise of each step is painted in gilt to resemble the spine of a leather-bound book. Most of the back wall is dominated by a huge cloverleaf opening. This is fronted with a grate except at the top from which a staircase is lowered at points throughout the production. Stark lighting of this feature certainly made Cervantes entrance and descent into the prison a dramatic moment, but the staircase ultimately detracted from later scenes: Lowering it was slow, noisy business, and the crosspiece of the support decapitated several of the actors playing the Inquisition's guards, at least from my perspective.

I liked the set, props (Elizabeth Fandrei), and costumes (Brenda Winstead assisted by Julia Zayas-Melendez) so much that I wished the lighting design (Denise Karczewski) had been better, or perhaps less uneven is more accurate. Some effects, like the windmill and the sudden harsh light shining through the grate when the soldiers interrupt the play, were nicely done. At other points, though, actors were suddenly blinded with harsh spots for no obvious dramatic reason.

Obviously crucial to any successful production of Man of La Mancha is The Man himself. In his first few moments as Cervantes, I had fears for James Harms. I'm glad to say, however, that they were unfounded. He was stellar both vocally and dramatically, and I could see him bringing the other characters to life as Cervantes.

David Perkovich's Sancho tends toward the James Coco (who played the famous sidekick in the movie version of Man of La Mancha, starring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren) end of the spectrum. He handles the comedy, both spoken and physical, with gusto, and had the audience right where he wanted them for most of the show. However, the performance felt a little superficial, lacking any strong spark with Harms's Quixote or Quijana. I remember thinking when it was time for "A Little Gossip" that it seemed like a long while since we'd seen Sancho.

Rounding out the leads is Ericka Mac as Aldonza/Dulcinea. Unlike many actresses tackling the role, Mac is careful to tease out both the humor and the subtlety. This is best exemplified in the "missive" scene with Sancho. Mac's loose physicality and just the right amount of softness in her voice created a connection between the characters that made this one of the best scenes in the play. Vocally, Mac struggled from time to time. In a piece for the Post Tribune, Mac is quoted as saying "Aldonza's songs sit in a mid-range belt that is very comfortable for me," a comment that seems in conflict with the operatic passages that embellish almost all of the character's songs. This suggests the role may have been a little more than Mac bargained for, but her dramatic skill was more than adequate to render her a very successful Aldonza.

The supporting cast are all excellent. Dennis Kelly (Governor/Inkeeper) deserves special mention for the depth of character he cobbles out of handful of lines and half a song. Likewise, Audrey Billings seizes the opportunity to add a bit of complexity to Antonia and her relationship with Carrasco. The other actors help keep the production skimming along, and they vocally make up for some very shaky musical direction by William A. Underwood. I'm sympathetic to the challenge facing Underwood, who plays keyboards in addition to conducting just a percussionist (Ethan Deppe) and Guitarist (Malcolm Ruhl), but I can't really account for some of the strange decisions regarding keyboard sound effects, or especially for not showcasing Ruhl's gorgeous Spanish guitar skills more prominently.

Man of La Mancha runs at the Theater at the Center through October 11. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 2:00 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2:30 pm; additional performances on select THursdays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $36 dollars for matinees and $40 for evening performances. Call the box office (219-836-3255) or (800-511-1552) for more information.

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.