Weston’s ‘La Mancha’ hurls down gauntlet to begin 80th season

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Michael Mendez as Sancho Panza, Geoffrey Wade as Quixote and Marissa McGowan as Dulcinea in Weston's production of Man of La Mancha

Michael Mendez as Sancho Panza, Geoffrey Wade as Quixote and Marissa McGowan as Dulcinea in Weston’s production of Man of La Mancha. Photos by Hubert Schriebl.

Anyone who was around in the ’60s and ’70s has probably heard at least a dozen of the hundreds of cover recordings of “The Impossible Dream,” the signature song of the musical Man Of La Mancha. Whether it was Andy Williams or Frank Sinatra or Jim Nabors (in uniform as Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.) they were performed by powerful voices, singing earnestly.

But the musical adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ satire Don Quixote that ran on Broadway from 1965 to 1971 brought more to the stage than operatically sung songs of inspiration and uplift and the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s production — beginning its 80th Main Stage season and playing until Saturday, July 16 — is a beautifully realized example.

Using the conceit of a play within a play, Man of La Mancha is the story of Cervantes – a sometime actor, soldier and tax collector – and his servant. They are in prison, waiting to be tried by the Inquisition for putting a tax lien on a monastery. Before he can be examined by the church however, he is tried by his fellow prisoners, accused of being “an idealist, a bad poet and an honest man” as a pretext for taking all his possessions including the unfinished manuscript of Don Quixote.

For his defense, Cervantes dons makeup and reaches into his trunk of props. He enlists the prisoners to act out parts in his novel about an old man whose “brains dry out” from reading too many novels of chivalric romance and begins to believe he is a medieval knight who sets out on a quest full of imaginary adventures with his servant Sancho Panza and finds his chaste, ideal love Dulcinea.

Marissa McGowan as Aldonza sings "It's All the Same"

Marissa McGowan as Aldonza sings ‘It’s All the Same.’

“The Impossible Dream” not withstanding, Man of La Mancha is not just adventure and chivalry. There is also a large helping of humor – some of which verges on schtick as when Sancho sings “I Really Like Him” in explanation of why he follows Quixote.

As Quixote, Weston veteran Geoffrey Wade does not bring the big clear-as-a-bell voice that’s often cast in the role and this is good. The rougher timbre of his baritone makes him far more believable as the knight errant than someone like Placido Domingo who made a studio album of the score 20 years ago.

Wade as Cervantes arrives tentatively in the dungeon, but from the moment he sits down and begins putting on his Quixote makeup he moves to the center of the story and pushes the play forward decisively.

Sancho Panza serves as comic relief for the ever earnest Quixote and Michael Mendez takes to the role admirably.

As Aldonza, the tavern wench and prostitute, Marissa McGowan plays the hard edge that comes from rough experience and accepting her lot. McGowan makes the realization that someone could see her as perfect quite touching and the subsequent recognition that Quixote’s reverence for her as Dulcinea won’t change her lot at all is heartbreaking.

Her angry performance of the song “Aldonza,” as she insists on showing Quixote who she really is (Aldonza the whore) was the most powerful moment in the evening, drawing prolonged applause and nearly stopping the show at last Wednesday’s preview.

Many of the large cast have multiple roles in both plays and there are some standout moments including the song “We’re Only Thinking of Him” in which Quixote’s niece (Clara Cox) and housekeeper (Thursday Farrar) and the niece’s fiance (Erick Pinnick) sing about bringing the old man back to reality for their own purposes. The local priest, (Allen Kendall) to whom they sing ironically agrees as he sees through their pious hypocrisy.

Mendez and Wade as Sancho and Quixote

Mendez and Wade as Sancho and Quixote

Jim Sandefur’s brilliant multi-level set – in one moment a dungeon and in the next the courtyard of an inn – feels expansive, a neat trick for the small playhouse stage. A stairway that is lowered into the prison to deliver the inmates and remove them to their fates is an ominous presence always hovering over the actors.

Lighting designer Travis McHale and sound designer Ed Chapman pull off a wonderful moment when rotating shadows of sails on the stage floor and the thumping and whooshing of a windmill prompt Quixote to charge off-stage to battle what he sees as a four armed giant. While many of the scenes were lit like paintings, there were a few missteps with spotlights that will surely be ironed out in the run.

One floor down from the dungeon, in the orchestra pit, a mere four musicians – Daniel Feyer, Jake Turski, Kurt Marcum and Matt Wong do yeoman duty handling a score with songs that range from intimate to monumental.

Director Tim Fort keeps the pace crisp, staging the action so that two hours (without an intermission) fly by.

Man of La Mancha continues through Saturday, July 16 at the Weston Playhouse, 12 Park St., Weston. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, click here or call 802-824-5288.

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