by Lynn on June 24, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Man of La Mancha

At the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion.
Directed by Robert McQueen
Choreography by Marc Kimelman
Musical Direction by Franklin Brasz
Set by Douglas Paraschuk
Costumes by Dana Osborne
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Peter McBoyle
Video and Projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis
Robin Hutton
Cory O’Brien
Tom Rooney
Steve Ross
Shawn Wright

A story of following your dreams, no matter how hopeless, with fine performances by Tom Rooney and Steve Ross, but the production is too busy, illogically directed and confusing.

The Story. A complicated story of imagination, dreaming impossible dreams, fighting windmills seeing good in everybody. Miguel de Cervantes, poet, writer, tax collector and his side kick are arrested for being too aggressive in their tax collections. They are arrested, thrown in prison and await being interrogated. This is the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a terrifying time.

The people in the prison threaten to take Cervantes’ and the side kick’s possessions unless they plead their case before the prison folks. Cervantes fashions a story, using the prisoners as participants. The side kick now becomes Sancho Panza. Cervantes imagines a simple man, Alonso Quijana who has been driven mad with reading about chivalry and attempting to put that chivalry into practice. Quijana in turn imagines a character name Don Quixote de la Mancha who is chivalrous, dreams the impossible dream, fights the unbeatable foe and imagines a prostitute is his gracious lady. The brutality of the prison vs the imagined chivalrous world of Don Quixote provides gripping tension and drama.

The Production. Douglas Paraschuk’s multi-leveled set is mighty impressive. A giant drawbridge lowers (to the accompaniment of foreboding music) from a high perch to allow prisoners to walk down into the pit of the prison. The drawbridge then rises up leaving the folks captive in more ways than one. There are catwalks above on either side of the stage. Windmills are high up in the background.

The prisoners are a wild bunch of over-sexed men who keep grabbing and flipping at the skirts of the tough women there, one of whom is Aldonza a bar maid/prostitute. The men are so combative it’s a wonder they all haven’t killed each other and raped the women until they couldn’t walk upright. When Cervantes and his side kick arrive they offer a new focus of the men’s anger and energy.

When the men are ready to pounce and take Cervantes’ possessions, Tom Rooney as Cervantes/Don Quixote/Quijana quickly goes into action, mind racing, urgently fighting to keep his stuff, especially a leather pouch holding several written pages of something. He will tell them a story and engages the prisoners to play parts that will help tell it as well as getting them on his side, of course.

There are costumes fashioned out of whatever is there, the same for the props. But imagination seems to have been left on the drawbridge when conjuring horses for Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. We see a projection on a curtain of two shadowy characters clomping along on a horse. Cheesy.

Robert McQueen has directed an underwhelming, overloud, confusingly busy production that often makes no sense. The microphoning of the singers is so loud and not balanced that you don’t know who is singing or talking, in spite of Kimberly Purtell’s lighting. One is searching high and low on that elaborate set to find the speaker/singer and when we do, focus is distracted. And McQueen has so much scurrying over the top parts of the set, and down on the stage that too is distracting. I notice that while the story is being enacted, most of the prisoners, who should have been watching, aren’t there. Where did they go? For a smoke? Some tapas? If those people in the prison are to be judging Cervantes and his story, then surely they should all be there watching carefully from every part of that set. Often too Cervantes is absent while a portion of the story is being told, and re-appears at the end of a scene. Odd that.

Tom Rooney as Cervantes/Quijana/Quixote and Steve Ross as Sancho Panza are bright spots in the production. Rooney of course is a consummate actor who digs into the heart of his characters. He sings beautifully and realizes the depths Mitch Leigh’s music and Joe Darion’s lyrics and not just “The Impossible Dream.” He adds sensitivity and nuance to all his songs. Ross is the good natured, simple man who is devoted to him. Don Quixote makes Sancho Panza brave. As Pedro, the lead prisoner, Cory O’Brien is mean and dangerous. He would as soon beat you as look at you. As Aldonza, the tough prostitute who Quixote idealizes, Robin Hutton shows what hard work that part is. She is often breathless and shrill in her singing—her singing of “Aldonza” is particularly taxing. And she seems one-noted-angry in her acting.

Marc Kimelman’s choreography is particularly vivid in the first Act curtain rape scene. It is both balletic and brutal and certainly gets the harsh message across.

Comment. I grew up loving this musical. The music is lush, the lyrics vaulting. Dale Wasserman’s book is complex with a writer (Cervantes) creating a character (Quijana) who then imagines Quixote, along with his notions of chivalry, courtliness and madness. The production seems overwhelming to the director and the result is a disappointment.

Produced by the Stratford Festival

Opened: May 29, 2014
Closes: Oct. 11, 2014
Cast: 22; 17 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Approx.

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