Quixote retains his charm in revival

`La Mancha' gets promising, new look

Theater Review

October 25, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Man of La Mancha has returned to Broadway repeatedly since its 1965 debut. And it has always hewed to the original design and staging. Until now.

When the curtain rises on the Broadway-bound production at Washington's National Theatre, it reveals a new look and a cast of actors who bring fresh interpretations to their roles. Although there's some fine-tuning yet to be done, all indications suggest that this retelling of the beloved Don Quixote musical - with a powerhouse company headed by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio - will be warmly welcomed when it opens in New York Dec. 5.

British director Jonathan Kent has not attempted a wholesale re-envisioning. For example, a staircase is still the major feature of designer Paul Brown's stunning if overpowering set. But the level of gritty reality has been ratcheted up, heightening the disparity between the world as it is and the world as it is seen through the idealistic gaze of the title character.

Dale Wasserman's clever show-within-a-show adaptation of Cervantes' classic begins with the great writer's arrest by the Inquisition. Forced to submit to a mock trial by his fellow prisoners, who are threatening to burn his manuscript, Cervantes defends himself by re-enacting the events in his novel. He assumes the role of Quixote, and the other prisoners fill out the rest of the cast.

As always, Cervantes enters the dungeon by descending an immense stairway. But instead of lowering a central set of stairs that bisect a rectangular stage, Brown's design features a permanent swirl of stairs spiraling down and around a rusted, metallic semi-circular back wall.

Mitchell's Quixote sings the first reprise of the most famous song in Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's score, "The Impossible Dream," while climbing these stairs, but at this point the staircase has broken in half and leads nowhere - a clear visual metaphor for the song.

Mitchell's initial delivery of this number, sung to Aldonza, the scullery wench Quixote regards as a chaste damsel, is the pinnacle of his performance, justifiably stopping the show. (At Wednesday's opening it elicited both cheers and tears.)

Although in his opening scenes Mitchell still seems to be finding his way into the role, he's very close, and by the time he gets to "Impossible Dream," he has fully embodied the stooped, aging, twinkle-eyed knight. The actor, whose rich baritone is ideally suited to the role's vocal range, resists the temptation to blow this song out of the water from the first note. Instead, he lets Quixote's explanation of his odd, courtly behavior and rosy philosophy build to a logical, earned climax that convinces Aldonza and the audience.

Mastrantonio portrays Aldonza with raw intensity that contributes significantly to the production's unvarnished edge. Director Kent and choreographer Luis Perez have found imagery even more horrific than simulated rape for Aldonza's abduction; they show the cruel band of muleteers carrying her off after rendering her unconscious. When she reappears, bloody and battered, singing "Aldonza" to Quixote, Mastrantonio's angry, vibrato-tinged voice cuts through the tense air like a stab of ugly truth.

There are other well-realized performances as well. Short, stocky Ernie Sabella is a born comic sidekick as Quixote's loyal squire, Sancho Panza; Mark Jacoby is touching as the padre who can't disguise his admiration for Quixote's gentle madness; Stephen Bogardus is a fierce adversary as Dr. Carrasco, determined to strong-arm the errant knight back to the real world; and Jamie Torcellini is a delight as the barber whose shaving basin spurs the most joyously staged number, "Golden Helmet of Mambrino."

A final word about the imposing set, which proved a bit unwieldy Wednesday: The kinks will undoubtedly be worked out, but ultimately the high-tech effects are not the set's best conceits. If anything, there's a mechanical quality to the way the towering back wall repeatedly splits apart horizontally to reveal Quixote's colorful imaginary kingdom. In contrast, Quixote's makeshift steed, fashioned out of broken wheels, is a far more satisfying effect, which is as it should be in this magical musical about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Theater

What: Man of La Mancha

Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday; through Nov. 10

Tickets: $47.50-$77.50

Call: 800-447-7400

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