Man of La Mancha – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

Over the years, many have thought it a true tale, but it’s not. Even though the central character to the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, Miquel de Cervantes, was the real creator behind that most famous of all chivalrous Spanish knights, Don Quixote, the story the musical tells is a fantasy.

True, for a few years the late sixteenth century author was a tax collector for the government, and he really did go to prison in Seville, but his time spent behind bars was not quite the fanciful play-within-a-play existence that the musical tells.

Cervantes (James Rio) and his manservant (Andy Meyers) are arrested by the Spanish Inquisition and left to wait in an inescapable dungeon along with many others. The dungeon is a waiting area, a miserable, cold, dank place where thieves and murderers are kept until they are eventually called to trial. And there’s no point in chaining prisoners to the walls or cuffing them to restrict their movements; there’s no way out.

Those assorted thieves and murderers turn on Cervantes and his manservant the moment they arrive. As is custom, there’s to be mock trial. If Cervantes is found guilty, which is practically a given, the prisoners will take all of the author’s possessions and burn them, including an unfinished manuscript, precious to the writer but of no value to anyone else. Before a verdict is handed down, in his defense, Cervantes tells the story contained within the pages of his written work, and he does it in the form of theatre. He will direct his play and enlist the aid of the thieves and murderers to play the roles, with himself as the leading player.

The wonderful thing about Man of La Mancha is that it truly is piece of great theatre and incorporates all the elements that make imaginative theatre great. When Cervantes tells of an old country gentleman who reads so much that he becomes overwhelmed of man’s inhumanity towards man, and loses his mind as a consequence, with the use of a few props and a change of lighting, that dungeon setting can become the countryside, an inn, a family home, anything it wants. All that’s needed is imagination and to temporarily suspend disbelief. After all, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In the case of these prisoners, that Shakespearean quote becomes literal; their world within that dungeon becomes their stage, and they the players.

After the opening sound of a terrific scene-setting trumpet fanfare, courtesy of John Eth in conductor James May’s equally terrific seven-piece orchestra, the Arizona Broadway Theatre’s plush red curtain rises upon scenic designer Kara Thomson’s handsome looking set, the kind so full of detail that once revealed you can’t help but want to explore all of its nooks and crannies.

There are what looks like three castle turrets, doorways that flank either side with various other passages to enter and exit, an angled wooden bridge with assorted hanging ropes that resembles the kind of gangplank used when boarding a ship from the dock, and the ability to see a night sky above. But what immediately strikes you is that it doesn’t look particularly like the set to Man of La Mancha. It’s more the Tower of London’s Traitor’s Gate than a dank Spanish dungeon, and without that famous central staircase that lowers like a lean drawbridge when a prisoner arrives and rises so that no one can ever leave, you realize that what you’re about to see is a re-designed version of the musical, one that doesn’t require so much of your imagination, your willing suspension of disbelief, or too many lighting changes to transport you to other locations, the set does all the work for you.

As directed by Joseph Martinez, when James Rio’s Cervantes takes charge and casts his characters from the available prisoners, he explains what is needed of them, but he’s really talking directly to us, breaking that fourth wall, relating events to the ABT audience when he should be directing everything to the cast – they are his audience, they’re his judge and jury, and it’s to them he’s supposed to be appealing. At a later point when the cast exit and leave Cervantes alone (where did they go? It’s supposed to be an inescapable dungeon) he continues telling us the plot. Traditionally, the cast never leave. They are always there, lurking in the shadows, becoming part of the story only when called upon. Evidently, in this case, somehow the judge and jury don’t need to be in attendance to hear the author’s defense.

Perhaps the difference to this particular approach will be lost on those new to the production, but like the set that doesn’t fully reflect the show’s original intention, neither does talking to the audience reflect Dale Wasserman’s original writing. At the show’s conclusion when the cast reprise in one voice The Impossible Dream, they should be angled, facing Cervantes as he exits, their arms reaching out, but here they’re directed to face the audience, once again, acknowledging we’re there, watching them. The voices that sustain that last note are truly inspiring – it’s the kind of overwhelming musical sound that demands you leap to your feet at its conclusion – but it doesn’t look right when turning away from that bridge Cervantes crosses, then turning to face us. That’s for a variety show, not a musical play.

Rio nicely captures that elderly Don Quixote look as he changes from a younger, clean-shaven man to the eccentric looking older knight-errant, though the display would be far more effective had he applied his makeup with his back to us throughout rather than facing the audience. There’s no theatrical sense of a reveal when he declares that he is no longer a country gentleman but a dauntless knight known as Don Quixote, we’ve basically watched the progression. His singing voice serves the songs well. His Impossible Dream is a crowd-pleaser and gets the applause the piece deserves, but his speaking voice, though strong with clarity, lacks the emotional energy the part often requires. When Rio as Cervantes talks of life as it is and not as it should be, the speech remains one-note, more like a resigned ho-hum throw-away, lacking the passion and anger he’s supposed to deliver.

As with the look of the overall production, Jessica Medoff, with her raven, black hair falling in untidy, wild locks, her healthy, stocky build, and her overall good looks, makes a handsome Escalante/Aldonza. Her fiery delivery when performing in the play-within-the play captures exactly what Aldonza’s character is, even if her style of singing doesn’t quite match how the server and whore of the inn might sound. Curiously, as the prisoner Escalanta, a character that’s supposed to be sitting in the shadows of the dungeon, an unwilling participant who traditionally has to be coaxed into taking part in Cervante’s impromptu play, is here, as directed by Martinez, an all too-willing performer, possessor of a hearty laugh at a dirty reference, ready to take on anything presented. She’s like Oliver’s Nancy, ready for a quick burst of Oom Pah Pah as soon as we’re introduced.

Special mention to Geoff Belliston’s Governor of the dungeon and Innkeeper to Quixote’s fantasy. His baritone voice, whether he sings or speaks, is a delight to the ear. Also to Micheal O’Brien’s Duke/Dr. Carrasco. When he enters disguised as Quixote’s enemy, the Great Enchanter, his masked appearance and his booming, amplified voice is hugely effective and serves its purpose; it might be aimed at the old, mad knight, but it would scare the life out of anyone.

Pictures courtesy of Scott Samplin

Man of La Mancha performs at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until November 11

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