What is illusion? What is sanity? What is madness? Can we create a better existence by believing hard enough in the transformative powers of grace and redemption?
These are some of the big questions raised in the classic Broadway musical Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman that takes us back to late 16th-century Spain during the Inquisition.
And the Ivoryton Playhouse has done an exceptional job staging and performing this ambitious play-within-a-play under the direction of David Edwards, who nicely balances its humor and pathos, and keeps the audience riveted for the majority of the two hour (plus intermission) production.
An interesting side note is that the Broadway hit was conceived practically next door at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Goodspeed adapted the TV drama Don Quixote by Dale Wasserman (inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ famed 17th-century novel) into the musical Man of La Mancha with a score by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion.
The show is built around “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)”— a song of iconic proportions that’s been performed by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and quoted in political stump speeches for the past 50 years. And the majestic baritone of David Pittsinger, who stars as Don Quixote, rivals any rendition of the dramatic song.
The action takes place in a dungeon in Seville—Daniel Nischan nicely designed the monochromatic multi-level set with walls that mimic ancient stone and where Pittsinger, as Miguel de Cervantes, a failure in his eclectic careers as a playwright, poet, and tax collector for the government, is awaiting trial by the Inquisition for an offense against The Church.
Cervantes asks his captors and fellow inmates to let him plead his own case in the form of an entertaining play and after he dons a beard and mustache from his makeup kit, and with his fellow prisoners playing the other roles, we enter into the world of the so-called “mad” knight Don Quixote de La Mancha, an old man whose “impossible dream” is to restore chivalry, battle evil, and right the world’s wrongs.
Quixote takes off on dancing horses played by AJ Hunsucker and Brian Binion (who perform multiple roles) in wonderfully whimsical costumes—among many designed by Elizabeth Cipollina—with his sidekick Sancho, in a sprightly performance by Brian Michael Hoffman. He sings a heartfelt “I Really Like Him” in explanation for befriending the nutty, but clearly endearing Quixote.
They go on to the famous encounter with windmills, and end up at a roadside inn Quixote mistakes for a castle, where he observes Aldonza, played by Talia Thiesfield, a scullery maid and trollop who he insists is a highborn lady. He sings the romantic “Dulcinea” to her, despite her protestations that she is not whom he imagines her to be.
Thiesfield starts out a little low-key but really warms up to her role as the distrustful servant, who eventually dares to dream along with Quixote. That is until, in a chilling and compelling performance, she is attacked and beaten by the men she and Quixote had overcome in battle earlier. Todd Underwood’s choreography of the fight scene is near flawless and believable enough to make the audience flinch.
Thiesfield has a lovely voice, particularly strong and passionate in Act II when she sings both “Aldonza” and a reprise of “Dulcinea.”
Besides his wonderful vocal abilities, Pittsinger can really act, taking on this complex role as “either the wisest madman or the maddest wise man in the world” with both seriousness and wit, smoothly transitioning into his different personalities and personality traits. He proudly sings the signature song, I am “Man of La Mancha,” and despite endless obstacles, maintains his character’s dignity and determination to the bitter end of his quest.
There are many well-executed scenes; Brian Binion is very funny as The Barber. His brass shaving basin is confiscated by Quixote, who is convinced it is “The Golden Helmet” of Mambrino. The other prisoners ceremoniously crown Quixote, singing “The Barber’s Song,” while Binion’s marvelous facial expressions reveal utter astonishment.
In a much darker scene, Dr. Carrasco disguised as the Knight of Mirrors, formidably played by David Edwards, (who also plays The Duke) defeats Quixote in a sword fight, forcing him to look at his reflection and see himself as an old buffoon.
The death scene, which I won’t give away if you don’t know the play, is heart-rending, but not over-acted or sentimentalized. It is at the same time tragic and hopeful.
Rounding out the performance is the talented off-stage orchestra under Paul Feyer’s dead-on direction.
Bravo to the Ivoryton Playhouse’s fabulous production of Man of La Mancha—a musical that sustains its resonance and relevance.
Man of La Mancha runs through Sunday, Oct. 2 at The Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street in Ivoryton. For performance schedule and to purchase tickets, call the playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.