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Friday, 30 May 2014

Review: More saffron, maybe? Man of La Mancha opens at Stratford

Man of La Mancha, written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Robert McQueen
Musical Direction by Franklin Brasz
Designed by Douglas Parschuk
Tom Rooney as Miguel de Cervantes / Don Quixote.
Photo: Michael Cooper
The Story: Miguel de Cervantes and his servant have been thrown in prison to await interrogation by the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. There they are put on "trial" by their fellow prisoners, and Cervantes pleads his defense in the form a play - in which he enlists his fellow prisoners to take parts. They perform the story of Alonso Quijana, a man made mad by the world's troubles, who now believes himself to be the knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, on a quest to "add some measure of grace to the world". Cervantes story of Don Quixote's belief in his altered reality slowly but surely imbues his fellow prisoners with a kind of hopeful determination to believe in something better.

Mr. McQueen's Man of La Mancha fails to add that measure of grace to the world that Donna Feore did in last season's Fiddler on the Roof, despite its having a much more triumphant ending than Fiddler's. But then, neither the play nor music is as well constructed as Fiddler, so perhaps it is not fair to compare. The cast is stacked, and had the fortune to block on the enormously intricate set from early days so they move comfortably around it, and yet the production does not seem quite cohesive...  like it is missing a little sumthin'-sumthin' that would put it over the top.
Robin Hutton as Aldonza.
Photo: Michael Cooper
The three leads, Tom Rooney (Cervantes / Don Quixote), Steve Ross (Sancho) and Robin Hutton (Aldonza) have fine voices - not operatic, mind you, and Ms. Hutton did sound as if she were straining to hit some notes that were perhaps a bit out of her vocal range. That matters to audiences with musical training and ears, but it really does not detract from her acting. She plays the role as a fiery "alley cat" indeed, and opening night she seemed transported during her rendition of "Aldonza", knocking it firmly out of the park and taking the audience with her.

Steve Ross as Sancho Panza.
Photo: Michael Cooper
For those expecting a bubbly, bumbling sort of Sancho, Steve Ross's version will be a delightful disappointment, since he plays the part with an inarticulate - and hilarious - dry pragmatism, alternating between enthusiasm for and frustration with his master (never more evident than in "I Like Him"), be it Cervantes or Don Quixote.

Tom Rooney plays both these parts, transforming from Cervates to the aging knight before our eyes during (my personal favourite number) "I, Don Quixote", not just with stage beard and makeup, but with a voice slightly altered and the halting movements of one who can no longer trust his muscles and limbs to do what they should. However Mr. Rooney is more engaging as Cervantes, the playwright, subtly manipulating the prisoner / actors from the shadows, entrancing them with this absurd idea of a better world. It is perhaps this imbalance which keeps the production from truly soaring to greater heights - notwithstanding the ecstatically delivered "Impossible Dream".

Those characters entranced earliest by Cervantes include an adorably sweet padre, played by Sean Alexander Hauk, and the ever-watchable-to-the point-of-distraction Monique Lund as the Housekeeper. Also enthused is Shane Carty's Governor, who throws himself into the role of the innkeeper like a man who has been waiting years for something this interesting to come along.
Kayla James as Antonia, Sean Alexander Hauk as the Padre, Monique Lund as the Housekeeper.
Photo: Michael Cooper
Of course, every playwright has its critics, and Cervantes is no exception, even in prison. His critics are the Duke, a skeptic played by Shawn Wright like a regal litigious prosecutor, and Pedro, a menacing hulk of of a brute portrayed by Cory O'Brien. (Choreographer Marc Kimmelman and fight director John Stead did their best to stage fight scenes stylized by dance which was interesting but not very convincing as either fighting or dancing, unfortunately.)

Back to that colossal, clever set. On the Festival Stage, this set might have been a disaster, but Douglas Paraschuk's design - while departing the text - encompasses not only the stage and its wings, but threatens to engulf the audience as well, placing us all in prison - a prison which happens to be the inside of a decrepit windmill. Its enormous blades upstage move in relation to events downstage - as Aldonza is attacked, for instance, the sky darkens and they blow more quickly in an oncoming storm. Subtle touch to indicate the passage of time? Smacking us over the head with some pathetic fallacy?  Is the set too elaborate? Just right for a modern interpretation? Whatever you choose to see in it, the set is undeniably breathtaking.

And so is the musical direction, by Franklin Brasz. With much more Spanish flair in the score than these ears have heard before - provided mostly by Spanish guitar onstage, not overly pronounced brass and strings - it is hard not to sway to the Latin rhythms, or not to feel moved at play's end. And yet... the feeling one is left with is that of something missing - like a paella without the saffron. The production is good, no doubt about it. But it could have been great.

Man of La Mancha continues in repertory until October 11 at the Avon Theatre.

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