Man of La Mancha (2018) – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

It would be difficult to deny having heard the loud proclaims of excellence, as expressed by the Tucson press upon the December opening of Arizona Theatre Company’s new re-imaged production of the Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha. Such was the extent of the praise, you might be forgiven for thinking that marketing hype and hyperbole had suddenly superseded the good sense of a writer’s analytical review.

What concluded 2017 for Tucson audiences began the new year for Phoenix. 2018 finally gave valley audiences the opportunity to see what our city to the south was proclaiming so loudly, and to judge for ourselves whether the ATC production, now performing at Herberger Theater Center, deserved the kind of extolling, trumpeting kudos it had received. The final answer will, of course, depend on personal taste and what you’re looking for when you go to the theatre. Traditionalists may balk, purists may even reject, but the reality is, director David Bennett’s new approach to the 1964 musical is so rich with invention and so full of fresh ideas on how to present a classic and make it appear new that what you heard emanating loud and clear along the I-10 corridor may well be justified.

The themes of committing to impossible dreams, fighting unbeatable foes, and living a life of passionate idealism, where madness lies in seeing life as it is and not as it should be, remain intact with director Bennett’s vision; the original text and the lyrics to the score are untouched. But with this new ATC production, it’s not so much the message of the piece with which you leave, but the overall design, the approach, and how that message is delivered. You leave with a new sense of what theatre can deliver, its potential for boundless invention, and perhaps even the need to reevaluate what you’re looking for when you go to musical theatre.

The late sixteenth century is updated to the twentieth. It’s the reign of Franco. Spain is full of unrest. Protests abound, and there’s fighting in the street. What was originally a dungeon where the Inquisition kept prisoners herded together, waiting for trial, is now the basement of a side-street bar where, during these times of political unrest, the place becomes a convenient waiting area, one where enemies of the state are kept under lock and key until they’re called to face the judge. There is only one way in, and there is no escape. Considering what we occasionally view through the cloudy, street-level windows above, the screams heard, the brutality glimpsed, being locked in this basement might be the safest place of all. Until, of course, the Inquisition returns and calls your name.

As with the original, the story remains the same. Writer/actor and tax collector Miquel de Cervantes (Philip Hernandez) and his manservant (Carlos Lopez) are arrested for foreclosing on a Catholic Church. Thrown down into the bar with other prisoners, all of whom are awaiting their own sentences, Cervantes finds he has to defend himself in a mock trial. If found guilty, which is a foregone conclusion, the other prisoners will take all of his possessions and burn his manuscript. In his defense, the writer presents a play, one that will be performed by the prisoners under his direction. What follows is the story of a fictional knight-errant, Don Quixote, who rides in search of adventure with his faithful servant, Sancho, both from the Spanish region of La Mancha, south of Madrid.

In this production, it’s not only the setting that’s updated, it’s the presentation of the score. Director Bennett introduces elements of a European culture that leaves you with no doubt of the story’s Spanish origin. Flamenco guitarists and dancers dominate the arena, while hand-clapping, finger-snapping and palms banging on table tops supply the percussive back beats. Plus, the musical instruments are played on-stage by the actors; there’s no orchestra pit. For some, this device may be the divider between what audiences enjoy and what traditionalists want.

The 2004 London revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd introduced a smaller cast walking on stage while playing the instruments themselves, a style of musical theatre repeated in a 2006 revival of Company. Musician unions weren’t particularly happy, and while Company won a Tony for Best Revival, not all audiences warmed to the style, fearing a trend. The 2011 musical, Once, also had actors playing their instruments on stage, but here there was a difference. Unlike Sweeney Todd and Company, where the style was often viewed as a gimmick, and one that certainly helped cut production costs, Once required its cast to play. After all, the characters were musicians, and watching them perform on guitars and pianos was something that developed naturally out of the material.

Bennett’s Man of La Mancha is less Todd and Company and tilts more in the favor of Once. It feels only right that the prisoners in the Spanish basement bar might also play instruments when performing the play-within-a-play, and even though you may miss the fullness of a live orchestra when hearing those great songs, there’s a natural quality to the sight and sound that works surprisingly well. Particularly effective are the violins and trumpet used in I’m Only Thinking of Him, and the trumpet, a large bass, an accordion, and a snare drum for Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

The flamenco dancing is also inventively used for more than simply colorful flavoring. During the rape of Aldonza (Michelle Dawson), the woman protects herself from the brutal violence by withdrawing within. As if Aldonza’s inner spirit had suddenly emerged, dancer Amelia Moore enters with a fiery flamenco passion and does what she can to fend off the attackers through dance, until her attackers overwhelm her, her energy caves, and she can dance no longer. It’s a remarkable musical sequence.

Performed without intermission as written, Man of La Mancha can also boast a well assembled cast. Dawson, who was a last minute emergency replacement shortly before the show’s Tucson opening, plays the broken Aldonza with just the right amount of confrontational abrasiveness required of the bitter character. Her singing tends to sound somewhat brittle on the higher range, but there’s warmth and caring in her characterization that successfully emerges through all the flaming wildness. Dawson’s tone to Aldonza is just right.

But the show belongs to Philip Hernandez as Don Quixote/Miguel de Cervantes. With a convincing Spanish accent, a commanding presence, the ability to move with ease from the writer to the older, fictional knight, plus the possessor of a powerful singing voice, Hernandez is the charismatic center that holds this Man of La Mancha together. He is quite magnificent.

Pictures courtesy of Tim Fuller

Man of La Mancha continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until January 28

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