New Rep's "La Mancha": To Reach the Impossible Note

The Cast of "Man of La Mancha"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

As is the case with theatergoers who were fortunate enough to attend productions of the 1959 “musical play” that was Man of La Mancha on Broadway, or one or more of its four New York revivals in 1972, 1977, 1992, or 2002, this show remains a beloved memory. Based on the 1965 novel Don Quixote (written between 1605 and 1615) as well as other works by Miguel de Cervantes, it was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning five (including Best Musical). It had first seen the light of day as a non-musical teleplay by Dale Wasserman in 1959, later adapted by him for the musical stage (at Goodspeed Opera House, also the original home of Annie in 1976), with Music by Mitch Leigh and Lyrics by Joe Darion. It was Wasserman's ingenious move to portray the eccentric title character in a play-within-a-play, a tribute to the historical reality that Cervantes himself, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was not primarily a poet but first and foremost a playwright and actor on the road with his own little troupe. This “musical play” reflected the idealistic hopes of the time, becoming known primarily for its best song, The Quest , also known as The Impossible Dream (especially among Red Sox fans in 1967). It was also acknowledged as providing one of the rare Broadway musical male lead roles, along with the likes of Tevye and Harold Hill. It survived its being made into an almost completely forgettable film in 1972 starring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, neither of whom could carry a tune in the proverbial bucket (though only O'Toole was dubbed). The question for modern audiences is this: does it still speak to them as it celebrates idealism and hope, in a more cynical age?

Alas, the question remains unanswered, at least with this production. For reasons known only to Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, the setting has been arbitrarily altered to Spain in the era of Franco (the 1960's) while still featuring a trial by the Spanish Inquisition (1478, last time one checked). One who had never seen a production of this show could be forgiven for not grasping the logic of that wrong-headed decision, one that mirrors the auteur approach all too common these days among operatic directors who thoroughly ignore a librettist's original intent. Unfortunately there were some other crucial missteps as well, from the distracting and ugly steampunk-like set, to the haphazard lighting that left one searching for which actor was speaking or singing countless times, to the equally unfocused movement direction, the weirdly unsettling sound and musical effects, the drab (even for prisoners) costumes and bizarre use of non-period instruments like an accordian and ukulele. Its most egregious mistaken choice was casting otherwise excellent actors in singing roles that were out of their comfort zones. It also ignored the explicit instructions by the librettist that Cervantes appear to grow old and gaunt (applying makeup and beard as he assumes the title role), and that his comic sidekick be “chubby” (not due to a prosthetic appliance). And then there is Wasserman's note that “the play is performed without intermission”, which was also ignored, leading to the breaking of tension as the play progressed. So many wrong-headed decisions were indicative that the creative team failed to grasp and/or convey the fundamental message of the piece.

One exception was the choice of Austrian opera diva Ute Gfrerer as Aldonza, the whore who evolves into Dulcenea, the “noble lady” chosen by the knight-errant Don Quixote, who is his sole convert in the end. Gfrerer was solidly at home in her acting and singing of the role (though she looked far too well-coiffed for the character), whose famous background in interpreting Kurt Weill really showed, a reminder of the power the play should possess.

Sadly, if one is looking for meaning in life and the courage to persevere with resilience against a tyrannical administration, one won't find either here in this missed opportunity.

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