CRITIC'S CHOICE ARCHIVES
Rebecca Fischer's review of All's Well that Ends Well at Great Lakes Theater Festival
All is Swell, or, All Cats are Gray at Night
Rule of Life No. 26 reads “If you get a chance to see one of the obscurer Shakespeare plays, take it.”
Seriously. You can pass up your “Hamlet”s or your “As You Like It”s if you must, because they’ll always come round again…but “All’s Well That Ends Well”? Not bloody likely, as Eliza Doolittle would say. And this rule applies even if the production on offer is being done by the local middle school. So how much more quickly should you grab your credit card and call the ticket office if you have the chance to see the Great Lakes Theater Festival's entertaining production, now at the Ohio Theater.
Rebecca Fischer's review of "Frankenstein" at Fusion Fest
FusionFest continues at the Cleveland Playhouse with a performance of “Frankenstein”, presented by the New World Performance Laboratory, a group that is inspired by the theories of Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish avant-garde man of the theatre. Far be it from me to attempt a description of what Grotowski was up to, but it involves stripping the barriers separating audience and actor - the actors, through rigorous physical training, making themselves a vehicle for the sharing of the basic human condition., creating theatre that aspires to the condition of religious ritual.
Well. Perhaps the group should not have chosen the Frankenstein story for their theatrical experiment, since I, for one, found it hard to concentrate on the basic human condition, with visions of the classic films of James Whale dancing in my head: of Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester, not to mention Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. . Not attempting a straightforward telling of the story, the show is a mosaic, not to say mish-mash, of texts from Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Rousseau, among others. To quote the program notes, this “Frankenstein” means to investigate the relationship between and “the self” and “the Other”: the foreign Other, the sexual Other, the environmental Other, and the transcendental Other.” The humorous Other has not been invited.
I wish I could report better things of this production – I was rooting for it to succeed, because, heaven knows we don’t usually get the chance to see anything remotely experimental at the Playhouse. But for the most part the members of the cast just seemed like really nice kids, doing their damnedest to be daring and avant-garde. The only actor onstage to whom one’s eyes kept turning was Jairo Cuestra as The Creature, the senior member of the cast and a long-tine collaborator with Grotowski.
Mostly, the actors’ voices are just too undeveloped, and while everyone was physically very active, the quality of movement was frenetic without being interesting.
One incidental pleasure of the evening is to play “Name the poet” as the quotes fly by; another is the singing of Megan Elk as Mary Shelley, a lush mezzo in every sense, whose “Carmen” I would go to hear any day. As it is, we get to hear her sing “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls”, an oddly Victorian moment in the proceedings.
There’s only one more performance of “Frankenstein” at the Cleveland Playhouse, and that’s tonight. But there will be several more performances through May 31 in Guzzetta Hall at the University of Akron
Rebecca Fischer's review of "All Hail Hurricane Gordo"
As the centerpiece of their two and a half week festival of performing arts called “FusionFest”, the Cleveland Playhouse is doing a new play by a new playwright: “All Hail Hurricane Gordo” by Carly Mensch...a play which asks the question: Can - or should - the 20-something Chazz leave behind his emotionally disturbed and needy brother Gordo and go make a life for himself? I saw the play opening night, and I hope my praise will not be thought too faint, if I say that it was overall a pleasant little play, which made an immediate appeal to my protective instincts. Protective, because it seems to me that the young playwright, Carly Mensch, has talent, at least for making people laugh, and I don’t want to complain too much and too loudly about what she can’t – yet – do. The laughs all evening were genuine and I don’t think anyone regarded it as a wasted two hours. Also, she shows the ability to pace - no scene out-stayed its welcome. It is hard, I suppose, for any playwright born after 1950, to avoid the baleful influence of the TV sit-com; but, I would suggest sternly, the effort must be made. There were a few moments in the play last night that were both funny and true; which makes all the more obvious the many moments where people acted and spoke as do no human beings outside television. And there is a certain lack of concrete detail is the story - for example, how exactly did the brothers escape the notice of the authorities all those years - did no teachers' notes ever require a signature? - Even the time period is left vague - some indicators pointing to the late 1980s, some to a more recent time. And perhaps time and maturity will give the young playwright the ability to write a convincing character over 40, because, judging by the father in this play, she isn't there yet. And yes, the bunny is cute, but as a plot device, a tad labored.
Patrick James Lynch makes a meal of the role of Gordo, which gives room for all the tics, walks and funny voices any actor could desire. Chazz is necessarily the straight man; he's played well, if a bit palely, by Matthew Dellapina. Tracey Chimo is India, the girl who intrudes on the brothers’ claustrophobic world.
One not so minor point - We are supposed to believe that Gordo can be dangerous, to himself and others. I never believed it for a minute. The point of fight choreography is not to gain the audience’s admiration for the choreography, but to give the illusion of violence.
So overall, this is a promising play worth a look - a somewhat formulaic but intermittently touching play that might someday be regarded merely as an example of Carly Mensch's early style. Or, maybe, just as what she did before she started writing for television.
“All Hail Hurricane Gordo” is produced in association with Actors Theatre of Louisville, and continues through May 11 at the Cleveland Playhouse.
Rebecca Fischer's review of "A Handsome Woman Retreats"
Wednesday night, in the tiny Brooks Theatre of the Cleveland Playhouse, I saw the one-woman show “A Handsome Woman Retreats”, written and performed by Kim Wayans. Well, let me confess, I had only the haziest idea who the Wayans family might be, I had never seen the TV show “In Living Color”, and my cinema experience does not include the film “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”. So when the program notes informed me that I would be introduced to “many of the characters whose influences contributed to the success of the Wayans family”, I sighed a bit, and wondered if I could still sneak out and hear the end of the Cavs’ game.
Well, luckily, I stayed, and now I’m here to tell you that Kim Wayans will, if you give her the chance, give you a better evening than the Cavs ever did – not to mention infinitely more laughs.
The framework of the show is a ten-day meditation retreat undertaken by Ms Wayans, during which she copes with one meal a day, total silence, and long hours spent listening to her own breathing. Soon she steps out of the framework and gives her recollections of what, in lesser hands, might have been a clichéd tale of “how I grew up in the projects and ended up in Hollywood”.
But Ms Wayans avoids the clichés and gives us wonderfully detailed and hilarious memories of childhood, such as a father both god-awful and loving, in portraying whom, she shows for the first but not last time, that she is an actress of uncommon skill.
Nothing all that terrible has happened to Ms Wayans – unless you include not being starred in a Hollywood film - an experience that she shares, after all, with most of mankind. But she is onto something true here: small events, however trivial and unimportant they appear to the outside eye, contain the tragedies and ecstasies of life.
Our 10-year-old friends don’t come to our birthday party and we feel forever unlovely and unloved. A snooty old woman doesn’t like us and our hatred is black and unforgiving. Our mother smiles and praises us and we feel nothing can ever hurt us. And how remarkable it is that, whenever Ms Wayans speaks of her mother, “the most beautiful woman in the world”, she sheds a kind of radiance about the stage.
Besides reminiscences, the show also contains what feel like skillful stand-up routines – and are none the worse for that. One of the best is when Ms Wayans lets us know just what it’s like to think of yourself as a combination of Barbara Streisand in “Funny Girl” and Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, and then hear how the average Hollywood executive wants from you. Believe me, you’ll never think of the word “sassy” in the same way again.
|Just to show that the unaccustomed exercise of rolling in the aisle has not totally dulled my critical faculties, I will also add that the opening ten minutes of the play contains the only really predictable jokes, the last ten minutes contain an unconvincing panic attack (perhaps the performer was let down by her sound system here), and the “Keisha No-Life” segment is not as funny as Ms Wayans thinks it is. I also think that Ms Wayans, perhaps out of an odd sort of embarrassment, scants the spiritual aspect of her journey. She does say straight out that one result of her ten days of silence was to re-discover the God of her earliest childhood. But the moment seems under-emphasized, as though she didn’t want to scare the audience by turning too serious.
Anyway. “A Handsome Woman retreats” plays only through May 4 in the Brooks Theatre of the Cleveland Playhouse. I’m not in the business of giving guarantees, but I really do think you’ll like it.
If you don’t know the play, don’t worry, you’ll get it at first hearing. Young woman (that’s Helena), a mixture of intelligence, beauty, pluck, and passion, will do well-nigh anything to get the man she wants (that’s Bertram), helped by the curious inability of young men to tell one woman from another when the lights are out.
As always in Shakespeare the astonishing thing is the absolute prodigality of, forgive the cliché, unforgettable characters: the Countess Rossillion, (one of God’s and Shakespeare’s all-too-few gifts to the older actress) the cowardly lion Parolles, the courtier Lafew, the clown Lavatch, the irascible old King – and even Bertram, who seems to be Shakespeare’s attempt to create just an ordinary guy, put in an intolerably false situation.
Overall, I’d say all the actors are doing a more than decent job – I did have the feeling that the performances are still in the settling-in stage - a little bit fuzzy around the edges, maybe. More sharpness, a more settled conviction about who you are is generally recommended.
Just about everyone is understandable – which is not always the case with Shakespeare -
although one or two of the actors felt they had to help the audience with this relatively unknown play by speaking v-e-r-y slowly and distinctly. Thanks for the thought, but crisp consonants and forward-moving rhythmic impulse are more effective.
I must say that at the beginning I did not much care for the Helena of Sara M. Bruner. Squeaky of voice and slumped of posture, it seemed that all she offered was an extraordinarily high energy level. And one of the play's few famous poetic passages (the one beginning "There shall your master have a thousand loves") was gabbled through. But by the end of the play, she had pretty much won me over, even as she had won Bertram. And it is not the least commendable aspect of director Charles Fee's entertaining and warm-hearted production that, by the end, we really do care if this ill-assorted couple seems likely to make a go of it.
“All’s Well That Ends Well” continues through April 25 at the Ohio Theatre.
PS: By the way, when was the last time you took your kid to see Shakespeare? I dragged my unwilling 11-year old away from his video game to take him –and guess what: he liked it. You never know.
Rebecca Fischer's review of Pride and Prejudice at the Cleveland Playhouse
So, on the one hand we have “Pride and Prejudice”: one of the great novels of the
English language – and one of the funniest – written by one Jane Austen. On the
other, we have one James Maxwell, who had the temerity to take said novel, and
boil it down to make a stage adaptation of it. And wonder of wonders, – he did a
good job. Hewing closely to the story line, keeping most of the characters (I did
miss Aunt and Uncle Gardner) and using the exact Austen words for most of the
dialogue, Maxwell has created a respect-worthy version of Austen’s classic.
So now, what should Peter Amster, director of said stage adaptation at the
Cleveland Playhouse, do? Should he create a production that allows us to revel
in the depth of perception, the minute observation of human character, the sly
wit, the sharp but never mean-minded satire, the hilarious but all too human
foibles of the characters as created by Austen?
On the whole, Mr. Amster thinks not.
Instead we have, from beginning to end, broad cartoonish performances that would
not be out of place in a fifties sit-com and not a real human being anywhere in
Such flouncing about, such smirking, such simpering, such mugging, such
prat-falling would be hard to take in the broadest of farces; in a work
whose claims to wit, style and elegance need no proclamation from me, it is
I’ve heard directors warn their actors against “telegraphing” their intentions;
if Mr. Amster issued such a warning, it’s only because he prefers the semaphore
to the telegraph.
So infected are all the actors with this wink-wink nudge-nudge cutesy-pooh
style of acting that I won’t single out anyone in particular, only to say
that when a style is so pervasive, the blame attaches more to the director
than to the actors. Such an approach, among its manifold sins, makes
nonsense of the character of Elizabeth Bennett, one of the glories of
English literature, and makes such a total nincompoop out of her silly
sister Lydia that Mr. Wickham, Lydia’s seducer, seems not just heartless
Otherwise, I think the handsome set worked well, scene flowed into scene
efficiently and briskly, and the music was nice.
“Pride and Prejudice” continues through April 13 at the Cleveland Playhouse.
Rebecca Fischer's review of Doubt at the Cleveland Play House
The Evidence of Things Unseen
“Doubt: A Parable” , the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, is now on stage in the Drury Theatre of the Cleveland Playhouse, and yes, you should go see it.
If you ask why, I would say, first of all, because it’s a PLAY: not a musical, not a one-man show, not an exercise in consciousness-raising, not a history lesson – it’s a play – you know, with CHARACTERS, who speak real DIALOGUE – well-written dialogue that keeps you alert in your seat waiting to hear what will be said next. There’s STRUCTURE, there’s mystery and tension and resolution; heck, there’s even pity and terror – and as such, it was a pleasure, and a sad reminder that nowadays, we just don’t get enough THEATRE in the theatre.
The place is the Bronx; the time 1964. The plot turns on an accusation of child molestation. Sister Aloysius, the beady-eyed and infinitely hard-bitten school principle, is convinced that young and popular Father Flynn is overly fond of an eighth grade boy – who just happens to be the school’s first black student. Then there's young Sister James, a naive and enthusiastic teacher, tool and pawn of the play’s stronger characters. What is the play about? The nature of certainty, and doubt, and the corrosive effects of sin. And oh yes, it's also, in parts, very funny.
Sister Aloysius is the great role of the play, and Barbara Andres is on the way to giving a great performance. If she’s not there yet, I think it’s because she has drawn the character in all too simple black lines - the shading is still to come. But she has genuine authority, both as actress and character, and conveys that under a will of steel there beats a heart of granite.
Jennifer Ruffner plays Sister James wide-eyed and bouncy, not so much deer-in-the-headlights as squirrel-in-a-cage. And her Bronx accent veered wildly from barely there to super-Seinfeld ...as indeed did Father Flynn's. In the role of the accused priest, Michael Frederic gives a - how shall I put it - a sufficient performance: good enough to hold our interest, but this is a role that would absorb any amount of actorly depth and nuance.
Cherene Snow, as the young student’s mother, in her one scene was quietly commanding, unfortunately sometimes too quiet, but quite a good performance nonetheless.
Lighting and set were serviceable; but someone should have told the costume designer that there is no such thing as a baby blue priest's vestment. Not even in the Bronx.
These quibbles aside - don't miss “Doubt”..... on stage at the Cleveland Playhouse, through March 23.
Rebecca Fischer's review of The Crucible at Great Lakes Theatre Festival
Warning: This Review does not contain the word “McCarthy”
Sunday afternoon I was downtown at the Ohio Theater, where I rejoiced at the
chance to see Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” again after, oh I don’t know,
maybe thirty years or so? This was a play that was big - really big - at my high
school – maybe yours too – many decades ago, and I delighted in hearing again the
pungent Puritan-speak that Arthur Miller created for his characters, as he serves
up a version of the Salem witch trials soaked in lust, fear, and the mass hysteria
of adolescents who have just too darn much time on their hands.
In one of my earlier reviews, I mentioned the dangers of looking uncritically
to the theater for history lessons, and that applies in spades to “The
Crucible”. The play has not that much, really, to do with the trials for
witchcraft that began in Salem in 1692 - and even less. I would maintain, with
American history of the 1950s…but that’s okay. The work stands on its own quite
well as a mixture of melodrama and morality play.
The production, by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, is a good one. It holds
you from beginning to end – and only afterwards did it occur to me that, after
the near- perfection of the first act, the second act suffers from excessive
length, creaky dramaturgy, and the almost total absence of the character Abigail
– the instigator, in Miller’s version, of the “marvelous cool plot to murder” a
couple dozen of her fellow townspeople.
Good acting excuses a multitude of playwriting sins – in this case the splendid
performance of Andrew May as John Procter, the flawed protagonist who goes to
the gallows at sunrise because he will not put his name to a lie. May has
voice, presence, great range, and doesn’t shy at the moments of high emotion,
which are triumphantly carried off.
Laura Perotta though far too good-looking for the role of the prim wife, is
also very good; so too is Dudley Swetland as Giles Corey. (the story of whose
offstage death is the best since Falstaff’s) A couple of roles were not
realized satisfactorily, but let’s blame the occasional miscasting endemic to
the repertory system. (Which sustem in general I heartily approve)
The set is stark, which is fine, but also ugly, which is not. The costumes,
which look as if they’ve been mostly gathered from stock, avoid, I’m glad to
say, the Pilgrim-Father look. The bits of incidental music add nothing and
should be dropped.
Anyway – go see it. This production deserves far more than the rather
sparse audience present Sunday afternoon. “The Crucible” continues through
Rebecca Fischer's review of Gee's Bend at the Cleveland Play House
Gee’s Bend is the name of a real place: an isolated rural community in Alabama , populated by the descendants of slaves, that produced a number of extraordinary quilts, which, once discovered, became highly prized by collectors and museums. “Gee’s Bend ” is also the name of a play, by the young American playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, now playing on the Baxter Stage of the Cleveland Playhouse.
Now, there’s a great subject here. Anyone who has seen these quilts knows that they are quite extraordinary – bold, abstract, colorful – made from scraps of rags, old workclothes, sometimes great swaths of donated fabric. They show, if it needs showing, that art is the product of an acquired skill plus imagination – which two things are not the exclusive possession of a professional artist class.
But..... it is perhaps a subject for a PBS documentary, not a play. This play is an ungainly patchwork that stiches together diverse materials, lacking the unity of vision that the quilters themselves seem to have possessed. On the simplest level, the play is the story of a woman’s life, from the age of 12 or so to eighty-something. The girl, Sadie, lives with her sister Nella and mother Alice. She meets a handsome young man, gets pregnant, gets married, makes a home. These simple early scenes, well staged by director Shirley Joe Finney, are the most successful and touching of the evening. But as the play takes on more ambitious themes, it loses both a sense of structure and character. The characters become mere pegs on which to hang historical themes. Thus, Sadie goes to hear, and is profoundly moved by, Dr. King. She registers to vote, drinks at a whites-only water fountain, marches in Selma ..But when these scenes are over, having born little dramatic fruit, they’re over..... and it’s on to the quilts, their discovery by the outside world, her travels to museums worldwide to see them hanging in state. But of Sadie as a character, we lose all sense. As for Sadie as creative artist, she’s never been there at all. . In a play ostensibly about the creation of quilts, and their importance to the women who made them, there is not a word from Sadie on how she puts a quilt together, makes color or pattern, or what she thinks of the finished creation.
Ms Wilder is certainly not the first playwright to discover how hard it is to put a creative artist or the creative process onstage, (consider Dudebat in G.B. Shaw's "The Doctor's Dilemma") but she could have made up for it by keeping a strong sense of just who Sadie is. (For instance, there are allusions at one point to Sadie's religious mysticism - but instead of this affecting the action of the play, it just means that when the playwright wants a soliloquy in what is essentially a realistic play, she can have her character go downstage right and talk to God.)
But most annoying was the deterioration of the play’s language. The early scenes have a kind of sassy Southern vernacular, which, while I cannot vouch for its authenticity, is fun to listen to. But by the end, the language has dissolved in a misty sort of uplift usually associated with the more serious Hallmark cards.
And, right now, prior to any revisions Ms Wilder choses to make, this play has no end. It simply stops.
She also short-changes the other characters (of which there are only 4); I missed learning more about sister Nella who goes from smart-mouth sibling in the early scenes to doddering old woman in the last with little in between. Sadie’s mother and grown daughter, played by the same actress, are respectively a well-done stereotype and a badly-done stereotype. And poor Macon, Sadie’s husband, so emphatically out-grown by his wife, is there only to show that the kindest, most-hardworking guy will always turn out to be a male chauvinist in the end. ( I think there’s a good play, a tragedy, waiting to be written about Macon . After all, nobody discovered his quilts.)
And it’s a pity, because there’s a lot of talent onstage, particularly in the person of Erika LaVonn as Sadie and Shanesia Davis as Nella. I hope the Playhouse brings them back in a worthier vehicle. Both blessed with confident stage presence, sharp timing and good singing voices, their presence, particularly in the first half of the play, provides what pleasure there is to be had in “Gee’s Bend ”…..
which continues through February 24 at the Cleveland Playhouse.
PS: Check out (as I suspect the playwright did) J.R. Moehringer’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1999 feature article for the LA Times: “Mary Lee’s Vision” . Sadie is very obviously modeled on Mary Lee Bendolph of Gee’s Bend .
Rebecca Fischer's Review of Gershwin Alone at the Cleveland Play House
"I like a Gershwin tune...how about you?"—Of course
you do, and therefore you’ll probably enjoy
George Gershwin Alone, now on stage at the
Cleveland Play House.
There he is, the man whom Leonard Bernstein
called the most inspired melodist on this earth
since Tchaikovsky, and whom many (I for one) think
has some claim to be considered the greatest
song-writer since Schubert, on stage, talking about
his life and playing his songs.....and as each song began the audience positively purred with
pleasure, disproving the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt. It breeds rather in
this case renewed wonder and appreciation of just how good the guy was.
But if loving Gershwin is a wonderful way to spend a cold winter’s night, I’ve got to say the show itself is a bumpy bumpy road to love.
The show was created by Hershey Felder, who is responsible for the research, writing, acting, singing and piano playing. That’s a tall order, you’ll say, and I can’t help wishing Mr. Felder was just a little bit, well, taller.
Can’t have it both ways; if you walk out on stage and say I’m George Gershwin, then Felder-the-writer has to create a character for Felder-the-actor to play.
I think Mr. Felder would have been better off making an explicit distinction between being a third-person narrator, and being Gershwin-the-man. As it is, the whole script is in the first person, which results in the Manhattan wiseguy Gershwin talking to us mainly in the style of a sophmore term-paper; rattling off at speed facts, factoids, and the occasional doctored anecdote. The choice of biographical information seems unbalanced—from the overly detailed (we learn the name of the hospital to which Gershwin was taken in his final illness) to the entirely missing. (Why no mention of the fact that Gershwin was a talented amateur painter?—an especially odd omission since Gershwin’s self-portrait hangs over the stage.)
And I felt the need of some sort of framing device—the equivalent of FDR in the movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy" saying "Tell me something about your life, Mr. Cohan." The key to this might be in using at the beginning the device Mr. Felder uses explicitly at the end, when we’re invited to imagine ourselves in a 1930s Manhattan apartment, asking the man at the piano for just one more tune.
Mr. Felder’s voice is nothing much, but that needn’t be a problem—probably Gershwin’s wasn’t either. But the techniques of covering up for an inadequate voice—the crooning, shouting, the falsetto—get tiresome. Why not use other people’s voices here and there—in addition to the recording Mr. Felder DOES use, of the original Porgy and Bess?
The piano playing is better than the singing—but really, it is not good enough to justify taking up 15 minutes of a short show playing a solo version of Rhapsody in Blue; when Mr. Felder reminds us that Gershwin wrote over a 1000 songs, the temptation to shout, "then why not play a few more of THEM" is well-night irresistible.
Look, one doesn’t need to be a great singer and piano player to do this kind of show—not at all. But then, an honest assessment of one’s talents should inform the choice of music. Why not play some of the lesser known, or not-at-all known, songs? Mr. Felder has chosen only the best-known, which is just inviting invidious comparisons. After all, we all have tapes running somewhere in our minds of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, heck, even Jessye Norman doing these standards—the memory of all that, no, no, Mr. Felder, you can’t take that away from me.
My, I do sound grouchy, don’t I? Let me add that there are entertaining moments in addition to the great songs, and those moments happen when Mr. Felder drops the narration and actually impersonates Gershwin. He is physically well-suited to the role—and there were moments when, looking at the man with the imperious nose and the dark hair slicked back, picking out a tune intently on the Steinway, one did think "Yes, that’s what it must have been like. Yes, that’s George Gershwin."
But, taking the show as a whole, to my mind, Mr. Felder has not avoided the risk of reminding us of what they say about jacks-of-all-trades.
Rebecca Fischer's review of The Man of La Mancha at the Cleveland Play House
On Wednesday Sept 19, The Cleveland
Playhouse officially opened its new season with
a production of the musical “Man of La Mancha”
in a small-scale, pared- down production in the
Drury Theatre, directed by Amanda Dehnert.
Performed without intermission,
the show did without full-scale orchestra and made do very well indeed with a mostly
bare stage and a 12 member cast, several of whom doubled as musicians.
Watching “Man of La Mancha” for the first time in many years, I was struck by how quintessentially a product of the sixties this show is – not the later self-absorbed and self-indulgent sixties, but the earlier part of the decade, when a sort of loosely defined but aggressive idealism ran rampant and often pitted a pure-hearted hero against a corrupt world.
The representative of idealism here is, as you know, the sixteeth century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and his most famous creation, Don Quixote de la Mancha. Cervantes, according to Dale Wasserman’s book, is in some vague fashion on trial for his life, having offended the Spanish Inquisition in some minor monetary transaction. Ah well. Anyone who thinks you can learn anything about the history of Spain or the Inquisition from watching “Man of La Mancha” can go sit in the corner with the person who thinks you can pick up a little Egyptian history from “Aida”. While waiting in prison, Cervantes distracts and defends himself from his fellow prisoners by enacting some of the more famous scenes from his novel “Don Quixote”, (one of those works whose reputation is as high as its number of readers is low). Don Quixote, you will recall, is an elderly Spanish gentleman, stuffed full of fantastic tales of knights and chivalry, who sets out, accompanied by his faithful proverb-spouting servant Sancho Panza, to right wrongs and defend innocence. Along the way, he meets his ideal woman: Aldonza, a filthy sluttish barmaid to all the world but, to DQ, his pure and noble Dulcinea.
Don Quixote is of course mad – but what, asks Wasserman, has that to do with being right or wrong? Which is better, the sanity of a corrupt world or the madness of the pure in heart? (And here it is interesting to note that Wasserman also wrote the stage version of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.)
Mitch Leigh, the composer of the score, is not in the same league with Hammerstein, Lowe, or Loesser by a long shot – but the songs are effective and occasionally lovely. Music Director Bill Corcoran has done an arrangement for 10 musicians, heavy on guitar, that does not vary much from song to song – he also favors very brisk tempi. The ballet that I seem to remember depicting Aldonza’s manhandling by the muleteers is gone….all this making it seem a little less of a musical and more of a play with songs. Nothing wrong with that, either.
In the lead role of Cervantes and Don Quixote, Philip Hernandez clears at least one hurdle – giving a very fine performance of that intolerable old chestnut “The Quest” (better known as “The Impossible Dream”). Mr. Hernandez does not have a plummy or luxuriant voice; but it is more than serviceable and he uses it well. If I have a criticism of his performance, it is simply that I spent more time thinking what a skillful performer he is than in being moved by him. Something of the same verdict must be passed on Rachel Warren as Aldonza, though she has talent and intensity to spare. Prior to taking on the role of Aldonza in the play-within-a-play, she is seen as a prisoner who seems to be suffering from a mixture of catatonia and hysteria. This is, I think, a directorial mistake; Wasserman didn’t write a role for a hysterical catatonic, and her presence unbalances the prison scenes.
The role of Sancho Panza is usually taken by actors short, fat and middle-aged; Jamie La Verdiere is young, trim and sweet-faced. He possesses a nasal singing voice that could etch glass and peel paint; but also a charm that makes every line he utters a delight. Heidi Dean as an obnoxious child and Elizabeth Inghram as Don Quixote’s niece Antonia are quite good. The actor who plays the Barber spoils what could be one of the funniest scenes by mushy diction. Bad diction and over-miking also contribute to the weakness of what should be the climactic scene, where Don Quixote is confronted by the evil Enchanter, who strips him of his illusions.
Kudos to set designer Kris Stone and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, who created a marvelous velvety black space intersected by shafts of light from a dungeon door and window, splashes of pure white or vividly colored costumes, creating stage pictures that, at their best, made me think someone had been looking at the works of Goya and Murillo.