Review: A dream of a GCP production brings ‘Man of La Mancha’ to life
I wonder how we’d treat the central character of “Man of La Mancha” today if he suddenly popped up on our front lawn wanting to fight our Winnebago, say, or demanding a stray Forever 21 legging from the teenage daughter of the house as a knightly “favor.”
We’d probably call 911.
One of the joys of this bittersweet — and, if done correctly, deeply affecting — musical is the fantasy that we are all there in the prison with Miguel Cervantes as he awaits trial by the Spanish Inquisition. Sure, this blustery and magnanimous fellow might be deeply insane, but these prisoners have time to fill, and what does it hurt to extend a little benevolence to a fellow human being? (Especially one who can sing.)
In Cervantes’ take on the world, a weary prostitute becomes an elegant lady, rags become luxurious garments, and the dank dreariness of incarceration can dissolve, at least for a moment, into a world of uplifting song. For audience members, It’s easy to indulge Cervantes, who becomes Don Quixote before our eyes, in a way that probably doesn’t track in the “real” world.
I’m very taken with the new Good Company Players production of “Man of La Mancha,” which is directed and co-choreographed with a sure, insightful touch by Julie Lucido. I often admire and celebrate GCP shows, but I think this one is exceptional. The singing is glorious, the acting bountiful, the design finely wrought and the feeling tremendous. When the great Chris Mangels, in the title role, first transforms from drab prisoner to gallant knight and booms out his first great song, I felt a chill. And when Amalie Larsen, superb as Aldonza, reaches that moment when she, too, falls under the spell of this crazy old man, she becomes an embodiment of what it means to truly open your heart to another.
Lucido, co-choreographer Marc Gonzales and the creative team have given the production two great things: a pungent sense of place; and a fertile musical environment into which both the cast and audience can escape.
David Pierce’s cramped, foreboding prison set features dark spaces and cubby holes that characters retreat to and slip out of, and lighting designers Joeille Adams and Andrea Henrickson accentuate this shadowy world. (The lighting treatment of the opening of the prison door, as ominous as anything I’ve seen on Broadway, is first-rate.) Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s costumes are suitably grungy. Yet there are also moments of brightness and levity as Don Quixote recounts his various episodic quests. And, yes, there is a windmill (cleverly depicted) for him to tilt at.
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Music is at the core of this escape into an alternate reality, and in this, the production soars. Three guitarists (Dorie Hibinada, Richard Nielsen, and Kelly Nielsen) provide live music on stage (complementing the recorded track), a rarity in the GCP universe, and I can attest to how much this adds to the performance. Besides the two leads, we hear particularly fine vocals from the rest of the cast, including Don Gaede as the innkeeper, Julie Andrews as the Housekeeper and the rousing ensemble.
Joseph Ham, as the Duke and other roles, showcases his strong voice as well, and he also excels as an actor, finding the bite and challenge in his characters that balances some of the musical’s more overly sentimental qualities. A charismatic Miguel Molinar, as the loyal sidekick Sancho Panza, is a standout as well.
And then there are Mangels and Larsen, a local “Mancha” dream team if there ever was one, bringing heartache and a wry levity to their characters. Mangels delivers every ounce of “The Impossible Dream,” while Larsen — navigating a part in which sexual abuse plays a distressingly pointed role — balances Aldonza’s cynicism with a gentleness and purity that almost hurts.
The great draw of “La Mancha” is that it lets the audience embrace that gentleness as well. The world is a far different place than 16th century Spain, but the idea of going against the grain, of getting a little “crazy,” still carries with it both risks and rewards. We might draw the line these days at damage to our windmill (or our Winnebago). But thanks to Don Quixote and his never-ending quest, we all get to be a little more noble.