Charles Morey is setting off on a new quest to conquer some new windmills of his own, but not before directing the show that over the years has become Pioneer Memorial Theatre's signature piece.
The inspiring "Man of La Mancha" opens May 4 at the University of Utah theater in Salt Lake City. The show is Morey's last production as the theater's artistic director.
The musical is the story of the indomitable Don Quixote, who fights windmills and laughs off charges of madness in a fervent pursuit of truth, justice and the purest of love. His determination to see the good -- instead of bad -- in others is ultimately transformative, particularly upon the beautiful serving wench and prostitute Aldonza, whom he sees as his virtuous lady Dulcinea.
The musical is actually a play within a play. Quixote's story is told to a group of hardened prisoners by another inmate, poet and actor Miguel de Cervantes, as he awaits trial during the Spanish Inquisition. The brutalities of the Inquisition and the harsh realities of dungeon life set the stage for a piece Morey describes as uplifting and life-affirming.
"It's really about the power of art and the power of storytelling and the power of the human spirit to conquer though art," said Morey.
Weber State University alum Daniel Simons is in the cast as one of the prisoners and also a guitarist. Simons is onstage much of the show, playing solo and with the orchestra. A co-founder of the Dark Horse Theatre Company, Simons recently displayed his guitar-playing prowess in his company's production of "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash" in Park City.
This is third time Simons has performed in "Man of La Mancha," which he described an actor's dream because the storytelling is multilayered and the score is so powerful.
"From an actor's standpoint, it's just a fun way to tell a story as you watch everybody transform onstage into other people, and that adds layers and layers of storytelling," Simons said. "And the music is beautiful. It's a story with a lot of heart to it -- more than most." It's as much about the journey and what you accomplish along the way as it is about getting there, he said.
"The Impossible Dream" is the musical's big-money song, but the score by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh also includes other familiar tunes, such as "Dulcinea," "Little Bird, Little Bird" and "I, Don Quixote." The musical was first performed on Broadway in 1965 and has enjoyed a number of revivals. It was made into a 1972 film starring Peter O'Toole as Don Quixote and Sophia Loren as Aldonza/Dulcinea.
Morey has directed the show once before, in 1995 when the late Robert Peterson played the role. Peterson, who died of a heart attack in 2003, was a star in Utah theater and beyond. The actor -- renowned for his rich, melodic baritone -- famously took over for Robert Goulet as Lancelot in the original production of "Camelot" on Broadway.
Peterson starred in dozens of PMT shows and several productions as Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha." "The Impossible Dream" became Peterson's signature song, and he was well-known for performing it onstage and at functions throughout Utah.
"Bob was wonderful in that role and in many ways, he was responsible for a significant role in building this theater," Morey said. The theater had staged the show several times prior to Morey's arrival in the mid-'80s.
"When I got here, I kind of put it on the back burner for a long time and then we decided to revive it very specifically for Bob in 1995," Morey said. "Then for a long time after Bob died, I didn't even want to think about it without Bob."
'It seemed right'
Morey believes Utah audiences will welcome the musical back to PMT's stage.
"It seemed right to do it this year," Morey said. "We were looking for something that would hopefully be popular and has the kind of the weight and power of this show -- and so we thought that we'd do it again."
Broadway actor William Michals plays Don Quixote. Michals recently starred on Broadway as Emile de Becque in the Tony-winning revival of "South Pacific." The role of Aldonza is played by Maria Eberline, who recently made her Broadway debut as Elphaba in "Wicked."
The cast is rounded out by a number of New York City and Utah actors, a few with Top of Utah connections, including not only Simons, but also Utah State University graduate Michelle Blake in a featured role as the Innkeeper's Wife and Weber State University alum Justin Ivie as an ensemble member and understudy for Don Quixote.
Morey is confident theater-lovers will see a show they have grown to love over the years, and younger audiences will come to know and love Don Quixote -- the Man of La Mancha -- who courageously reaches for stars and inspires others in the most hopeless of circumstances to do the same.
Charles Morey's story: ‘I have had a great run’
Over his 28-year career as artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, Charles Morey has taken the theater from a university/community theater to a professional theater company that premieres new works and regularly attracts top-notch performers from across the country.
Morey has directed more than 80 productions for PTC, including the world premieres of “Touch(ed)” and “In,” and the first regional productions of “Les Miserables,” “The Producers” and “The Vertical Hour.”
When he joined the theater in 1984, Morey said he came in with a specific mandate to expand the theater repertoire into the classics as well as contemporary plays of distinction.
“I think we’ve managed that balancing act pretty successfully, too, in terms of expanding the repertoire and doing more and more challenging plays while holding onto a large audience,” Morey said.
That mission to stage new, compelling works has been evident over the past several years, notably this last season with the groundbreaking play “Next to Normal,” and the previous season with the rock musical “Rent.”
Like Don Quixote, who inspires others to reach for the best in themselves, Morey has also motivated many actors over the years to do the same.
One of those actors is Weber State University alum Daniel Simons, who has performed in several shows at the theater, many under Morey’s direction.
“It’s been a pleasure ever since I got my first job there, which was ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and I played a 12-foot dancing knife,” Simons said “As an actor, I’m willing to do whatever it takes and jump through hoops for him because you trust him and what he’s putting onstage. He will never lead you to the wrong place ... and that’s important because you don’t always get that in a director.”
When he first met Morey, Simons said he was intimidated because Morey is “super intelligent” and passionate about his work.
“Once you get to know him and kind of prove yourself, he is very dedicated to actors and very dedicated to telling good stories,” Simons said. “He’s a fantastic director and a fantastic storyteller and takes his job seriously.”
On the first day of rehearsals for “Man of La Mancha,” Simons noted, Morey told the cast that he wasn’t dying or retiring, but just moving on to the next phase in his life.
Morey is also the author of nine plays, including this season’s comedy “Laughing Stock.” Morey is planning to pursue directing and writing, including an adaptation he wrote of the Beaumarchais play “The Marriage of Figaro,” which will be staged in New York.
Though “Les Miserables” was definitely an “amazing” highlight of his tenure as PTC artistic director, Morey said it is difficult to pinpoint a single show among the more than 200 he has been involved with at the theater.
“That’s a lot of productions, and I have had a great run,” Morey said. “Ultimately, what I think about is not one or two shows or even 10 shows, but the entire body of work that we’ve done. I’m very proud of what we as a company have accomplished here.”
New York native Karen Azenberg will take over as artistic director. Azenberg has already directed/choreographed a a few company’s productions, including “Next to Normal,” “Rent” and “Miss Saigon.”