When Ten Thousand Things applies their patented Poor Theater style to a musical warhorse – as they did with last year’s My Fair Lady and now do again with Man Of La Mancha (various venues; the public performances are at the Opera Center and at Open Book, see the theater website for details) – wonderful but sometimes odd things happen. TTT emphasizes acting (indeed, you will not find better performances anywhere) and pure dramatic story-telling. In La Mancha none of the performers, terrific though they are, sings with the operatic machismo that this material so often inspires. Musically, this cast gets by, but just.
Also, at TTT, as you likely know, production values are minimal. No lighting. A few bent and rickety set pieces. Threadbare props (a table cloth becomes a priest’s frocks, an old mixing bowl a knight’s helmet, etc). The show is scored for a small electric keyboard and simple percussion. The stages are raw – rehearsal halls, meeting rooms – and tiny.
All of which means that purists looking for Richard Kiley/Robert Goulet-esque intensity are going to be disappointed. Perhaps Chanhassen will mount the piece, or maybe a revival will pass through the Ordway. Be patient; La Mancha is often performed.
No: this production emphasizes the story. It’s a good one: Miguel Cervantes and his manservant have been arrested by the Inquisition and tossed into a dungeon. There, Cervantes opens his trusty trunk of magic and transforms himself into Don Quixote. His manservant becomes Sancho Panza. They re-enact Quixote’s adventures, using the inmates to play various roles. Cervantes is a shameless romanticizer: “Facts,” he opines grandly, “are the enemy of truth.”
Cervantes gives one of the inmates, the seemingly unreachable, lost-in-her-hallucinations Reyna, the role of Aldonza. She is then transformed – or transforms herself – into the exquisite Dulcinea. “My virgin.” This progression from near-insanity into genuine grandeur amazes, and is a major reason this piece is so often performed. (That and the anthemic song “The Impossible Dream.”) “Look at me as I really am,” Aldonza/Dulcinea pleads. “I see Beauty,” is Cervantes’s reply. Wow.
Regina Williams plays this perfectly. Her approach to Aldonza is still, hushed, restrained – and gooseflesh-producing. She goes from bent over and muttering to convincingly regal. Every scene she plays with Cervantes mesmerizes. La Mancha is beautifully acted, but even so, Williams’s performance stands out.
As Cervantes, Steven Epp carries the show. His energy is boundless, his charm endless. He uses his wiry graying hair to great effect as he quickly takes control of the uncontrollable inmates. His sidekick Sancho, played by the inimitable Luverne Seifert, may lack the macho cynicism so often associated with the role, but Seifert more than makes up for this with a bumbling, squeaky, almost-but-not-quite-over-the-top (and audience-pleasing) comic flair.
The always wonderful Tracey Maloney plays the innkeeper with a nifty combination of fun-loving world-weariness. The rest of the cast – T. Mychael Rambo (here laudably restrained), Matt Guidry and Nancy Waldoch – is excellent. Sometimes this show seems like a literate Monty Python sketch. But this almost never bothered me. These well-directed actors are smart and this broad approach gives the play comic oomph. The audience at the Wayside House had a good time – and so will you.
OK, yes, liberties are taken. Many of Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh‘s songs have been cut and book-writer Dale Wasserman‘s text has been… adjusted as well. Wasserman, curmudgeon that he was, would have objected, but he would have been wrong: TTT’s production deftly threads a needle and makes the story work.
This is the play to see: lovely material, boffo cast, hot theater (TTT is coming off a long series of successes, most recently the fascinating Doubt). Director Michelle Hensley recently won a Sally Award. Quick, call the BO and make your rezzies; this show will sell fast.
For more info about John Olive please visit his (recently updated) website.