Robrt Pela: Review Of 'Man Of La Mancha'

By Robrt Pela
Published: Friday, January 12, 2018 - 7:59am
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(Image courtesy of Herberger Theater)
"Man of La Mancha" is a new production of a classic.

Standing ovations are, at least in our town, like playbills and that annoying recorded announcement about unwrapping hard candies: something you can count on at pretty much every theater production.

But one never hears the roars of approval that greeted Arizona Theater Company’s production of "Man of La Mancha" Sunday night at the Herberger Theater. Director David Bennett took artistic risks that pleased longtime first-nighters and theatergoing novices alike. They stayed to cheer—Don Quixote and his fellow play-acting prisoners.

Dale Wasserman’s 1964 Broadway hit brought us Spanish Inquisition political prisoner Miguel de Cervantes, who’s placed on trial by fellow inmates. In his defense he reads a play about Don Quixote, a delusional fellow who seeks knighthood. It’s a story of hope in the face of adversity. Although Bennett neither embellishes nor modifies the script of this oft-produced story, his take on "La Mancha" stands as a timely commentary on our troubled times, when delusions are offered as truth and despair marks our political climate.

Bennett’s "La Mancha" is populated by that rarest of things: actors who can play musical instruments. Or are they musicians who can act? Mitch Leigh’s score is played with great emotion by the people onstage, rather than by an unseen orchestra in a pit below. The result is an immediacy, an intimacy that warms the dungeon where these people are trapped. The director has moved them from Wasserman’s 16th century Spain to the 20th century during Francisco Franco’s reign?

The main conceit of this revision of Wasserman’s warhorse is the oddball overlay of flamenco music and dancing, used in a smaller way in the show’s original production. Guitarist Joaquin Gallegos accompanies a pair of gifted dancers who occasionally stand in for Quixote and his Dulcinea, stomping their love and disapproval of what’s come before them. It’s a trick that might have fallen flat without the peculiar talents of these particular players and the stunning cast that surrounds them. Philip Hernandez is a full-blooded, spirit-filled Don Quixote whose passionate presence is equaled by Michelle Dawson’s Aldonza. Only Carlos Lopez as muggy manservant Sancho can distract us from these performances.

This trio, and their gifted compatriots, were greeted with bellowing approval from "Man of La Mancha’s" opening night performance.

Robrt Pela’s reviews appear in the Phoenix New Times.

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