Raul Julia's Quixote shines production, though, lacks luster


February 13, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Washington -- To deluded Don Quixote, all that glitters is truly gold. But the Broadway-bound revival of "Man of La Mancha," now at the National Theatre, has a glitter deficit.

For this musical rendition of Cervantes' classic to succeed, the audience must share Quixote's sparkling vision. However, despite an ennobling performance by Raul Julia in the title role, the overall production is lackluster. And for a show whose basic theme is idealism, lackluster is a serious offense.

The casting of the leading lady is an ideal example. Putting Scottish pop singer Sheena Easton in the demanding role of Quixote's beloved Aldonza might sound like the impossible dream (or more likely, the dream of producers eager to cash in on the big bucks of pop audiences).

But the diminutive Easton doesn't turn out to be a bad dream, merely a meek one. Of course, meekness is hardly appropriate for robust Aldonza -- a kitchen wench Quixote insists is a virginal lady called Dulcinea. By the end of the show, the character softens considerably, but Easton starts out soft. In her opening number, "It's All the Same," she doesn't sound earthy, she sounds sweet.

Tony Martinez' portrayal of Quixote's faithful squire, Sancho, also adds a layer of tarnish to this once-shining musical. According to the program, Martinez has played Sancho in "every major revival of the show," for more than 2,000 performances. The result is that he has all the right moves and none of the spontaneity.

This is all the more regrettable considering the freshness Julia brings to Quixote. Dale Wasserman's script for "Man of La Mancha" -- which has music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion -- sets the story in a Spanish prison where Cervantes transforms himself into Quixote in a mock trial conducted by his fellow inmates. When Julia puts on Quixote's beard, bushy eyebrows and disheveled armor and launches into the title song, there's a gleam in his eyes, and that gleam illuminates his entire performance.

This latest revival of the 1965 hit has been staged by the original director, Albert Marre, and uses the original set and costume designs, as well as numerous cast members with previous "La Mancha" experience. David Holliday, David Wasson and Ted Forlow are splendid as innkeeper, padre and barber respectively. And it's a joy, once again, to see the clever theatricality based on Quixote's crackpot knack for imbuing simple items with extraordinary powers.

And yet, too much stays simple and unextraordinary in this production. Quixote is determined to become a knight who will right all wrongs, but this revival isn't so much wrong as it is dull, and it takes more than an earnest errant knight to right that situation.

"Man of La Mancha" continues at the National Theatre through March 1; call (202) 628-6161.

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