Friday, 30 May 2014

Man of LaMancha: Quixote still dreaming the impossible dream

Man of La Mancha
Stratford Festival
Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Robert McQueen
Music direction by Franklin Brasz
May 29-October 11
Avon Theatre
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes (with one 15-minute interval)
Contact – 1-900-567-1600
Review by Geoff Dale
STRATFORD – Dale Wasserman’s unabashed ode to optimism Man of La Mancha doesn’t just pose challenges to producers, directors and their casts but also to the audience and, in this case, the reviewer.
Why – because the grandiose musical operates on two distinctly different levels, ultimately leaving one to rely on his or her imagination to determine whether the end result was a huge success or rather an enjoyable night at the theatre comprised of rousing numbers, boundlessly athletic choreography and most importantly, the play’s signature tune The Impossible Dream(The Quest) actually moving you and warranting several reprises.
Consider what Wasserman once said and that could help you draw your own conclusions:
 “To me the most interesting aspect of the success of Man of La Mancha is the fact that it plows squarely upstream against the prevailing current of philosophy in the theater. That current is best identified by its catch-labels–Theater of the Absurd, Black Comedy, the Theater of Cruelty–which is to say the theater of alienation, of moral anarchy and despair.
“To the practitioners of those philosophies Man of La Mancha must seem hopelessly naive in its espousal of illusion as man’s strongest spiritual need, the most meaningful function of his imagination. But I’ve no unhappiness about that. “Facts are the enemy of truth,” says Cervantes-Don Quixote. And that is precisely what I felt and meant.”
While obviously open for debate, it seems fair to say that for the most part director Robert McQueen has captured much of what the playwright had in mind. The current version, with its wildly imaginative yet somewhat cluttered set design by Douglas Paraschuk and a powerful and provocative lead performance from Tom Rooney, is indeed very pleasing robust theatre. The opening night crowd certainly welcomed it with thunderous rounds of applause after virtually every number.

Rooney, a strong vocalist with a keen understanding of the character, deals nicely with the duality of the man – real and imagined. It’s a tight-rope walk that he pulls off with nary a slip. Consider once again the challenge involved.
On the one hand is Miguel de Cervantes, an elderly playwright, poet and tax collector precariously drifting in and out of moments of clarity and lunacy who is unceremoniously tossed into a Seville dungeon for a supposed offence against the Catholic Church.
Awaiting the Inquisition’s kangaroo court, he first must endure a raucous prisoner-led trial. His defense is a fanciful play based on the exploits – an unfinished manuscript – focusing on the ‘mad’ knight Don Quixote and his faithful manservant Sancho Panza (Steve Ross), a big puppy dog of a man.
Quixote is a valiant knight-errant, noble champion and fearless defender of those wronged souls. Along the way his flights of fancy bring him into the realm of down-on-her-luck prostitute Aldonza (Robin Hutton) who, in his mind’s eye, becomes the virtuous woman of all men’s dreams, Dulcinea.
Both Ross and Hutton are key components of a solid company highlighted by Shane Carty’s thoughtful innkeeper, Shawn Wright’s delightful triple offering as Duke, Dr. Carrasco and the fearful Enchanter and Stephen Patterson’s Barber, a welcome – if only momentary – slice of comic relief, floating in the dungeon’s sea of misery.
Mitch Leigh and Joe Carion’s music, while deftly presented by music director Franklin Brasz, comes down to being a matter of taste. Some will doubtless relish the positivity of the dream-like The Impossible Dream and the lilting beauty of Dulcinea. Others could envision the numerous reprises of The Quest as unnecessarily ponderous. Let us be blunt – we get it already. Then there’s the overly cute, cloying I Like Him – enough said.
For your humble scribe, more attention paid to the gloriously melodic and technically proficient stylings of on-stage Flamenco/classical guitarist Kevin Ramessar would have been most welcome, possibly accompanied by a quartet of violinists, violists and cellists for a much appreciated intrusion of musical subtlety.
The Impossible Dream, you might say, but then one doesn’t have to be a Miguel de Cervantes to envision such possibilities.
A major plus for this version is that it is in no way remotely similar to the disastrous, disjointed and thoroughly unlikable 1972 cinematic mess starring a non-singing Peter O’Toole, the gorgeous but strangely-out-of-place Sophia Loren and the terribly miscast funnyman James Coco.
Thankfully, even with some of those aforementioned minor quibbles, McQueen, inventive set designer Paraschuk and company, both on and off-stage, offer up quality entertainment. It is a tad on the noisily rambunctious side at times but still a quest worth undertaking.

4 stars out of 5
This review also appeared online at Donald’s Dish.

Photos: 1. From left: Steve Ross, Robin Hutton, Tom Rooney. Photography by Don Dixon and David Hou; Digital Artist: Krista Dodson. 2. Robin Hutton as Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. Photo by Michael Cooper.

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