There are certain shows in the wonderful world of musical theater that, while I love them, I think I've reached my maximum amount of safe exposure. "Cats," "Les Miserables," "Phantom of the Opera," "Camelot," "Hello, Dolly!" and (dare I say it) "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" come to mind. I've seen each four to five time individually, which seems to be about my tipping point from musical theater nirvana into madness.
Happily, I still haven't found that number with "Man of La Mancha," and Saturday night's production of the musical at Pioneer Memorial Theatre has only refired my adoration for this show.
I can't exactly pinpoint what captivates and transports me so thoroughly. Perhaps it's the method of storytelling itself -- a story within a story within a story, where the actors change facades and become different characters right before your eyes. Perhaps it's that crazed look of wisdom in the eyes of Don Quixote. Perhaps it's Aldonza's look of anguish and desperation after she has been brutally assaulted. Perhaps it's a score that sticks in your head -- in a good way. Perhaps it's the smile I and othes around me get when Sancho and Quixote mount their trotting, affable steeds -- usually played by other actors in imaginative costuming. Perhaps it's the reminder to see and embrace the hope and beauty in a world so often filled with ugliness, despair and sorrow.
Perhaps it's a lot of things, but it shows no sign of fading.
This is not only the last show of the season, but also the last show directed by Charles Morey, who has worked as artistic director at the theater company since 1984. Morey has capped off his 28-year career at the theater with a shining star. His talents as a director are apparent in a production that does not include an intermission and moves seamlessly from scene to scene and between alternating storylines.
The set was hauntingly beautiful and pulls the audience into the story from the beginning. Behind a giant flyaway gate made to look like wrought iron, the actors took their place on stage in a dark, shadowy dungeon during the Spanish Inquisition. As a clanking walkway descends into the dungeon, light enters the dungeon and transforms the stage as the storyteller and star appears.
I knew I was in for a great ride when Broadway actor William Michals began his transformation from the imprisoned poet Miguel de Cervantes into Alonso Quijana, an aging country squire who takes on the identity of the knight Don Quixote, on a quest to right the wrongs in the world. "Man of La Mancha" is a story about transformation, and it is fascinating to watch such an accomplished actor not break character as he applies the aging makeup, wig and facial hair to become the iconic Quixote. The show's first big number is "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)," and neither Michals nor Daniel Marcus, playing his faithful sidekick Sancho, disappointed in their obvious vocal prowess. Their voices were clear, strong and distinct as the duo sallied forth on their two aforementioned horses.
The score for "Man of La Mancha," written by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion with book by Dale Wasserman, is rich, lush and features perhaps one of the most familiar songs in the musical theater canon -- "The Impossible Dream." Michals did not oversing the song and the result was a beautiful, and poignant, moment in the story -- exactly as it should be.
"The Impossible Dream" may be the big money number in the show, but my favorite song is the beautiful and simple "Dulcinea," which ultimately transforms a life. The power of "Man of La Mancha" lies in the relationship between Don Quixote and Aldonza -- the beautiful serving wench and prostitute -- and Quixote's refusal to see Aldonza as anything other than his virtuous lady Dulcinea.
Aldonza was played by Maria Eberline, who certainly looked and could play the part of the fiery Aldonza. Eberline's performance was passionate and heartfelt. While she was a little under pitch on some of her numbers Saturday night, Eberline was particularly effective at the end of the play when her character's transformation is complete and she utters the line "My name is Dulcinea." It's a beautiful moment in the show as she covers her head and quietly walks away.
The supporting cast and ensemble also did stellar jobs, with standouts being Marcus as Sancho, Dirk Lumbard as the Governor and Innkeeper, and the ensemble of muleteers. Marcus' comic timing was superb, and Lumbard was likeable and simply a pleasure to watch, particularly during the funny scene in which he dubs Quixote "Knight of the Woeful Countenance." The muleteers were strong and menacing. These are a group of guys you wouldn't want to mess with on a lonely country road -- but they could still entrance you with a little ditty called "Little Bird, Little Bird."
The show really belongs to Michals, who has now put his own mark on this amazing character. Don Quixote lives, and the audience seemed to agree Saturday as it rose to its feet and gave Michals and the cast well-deserved applause. Whether you've never seen this show, or you're like me and are approaching the double-digit mark, "Man of La Mancha" is a unique theatrical experience that never grows tiresome. Too much musical theater may be madness, but I'm sure Don Quixote would argue that it's not.