Regional Theater Review: Man of La Mancha (Cygnet Theatre in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on July 31, 2012

in Theater-Regional

A GREAT KNIGHT, BUT JUST A GOOD NIGHT

When a show comes back time and again, the review question is two-fold:  (1) Is it worth reviving?  and (2)  Does this production offer a reinterpretation such that it warrants another look (or a first time look for a new generation)?   In the case of Cygnet’s Man of La Mancha, the answers are (1) absolutely and (2) a tentative yes.

The score alone makes Man of La Mancha one of the great must-sees; the incomparable 1965 original cast recording bears playing time and again.  Director Sean Murray’s staging is vibrant on Cygnet’s modest sized stage, but there is some uneven casting in the leads and the reducted orchestrations seem unsuitable to the grandeur of Mitch Leigh’s music, but this offering has enough going for it to make a recommendation.

Milo Shapiro’s Stage and Cinema San Diego review of Cygnet’s MAN OF LA MANCHAWith book by Dale Wasserman and lyrics by Joe Darion, La Mancha is a story within a story, both taking place around the turn of the 16th Century.  At the first level of the story, we are introduced to writer/actor Miguel de Cervantes who has just been tossed into a dungeon jail cell for daring to try to collect taxes from the Catholic Church during the Spanish Inquisition.  He is immediately surrounded by unsavory characters who put him on a mock trial within the cell; if he is found innocent, they will not destroy his possessions.  As one of his charges is of “being a poor poet,” he defends himself by sharing his best play, the story of Don Quixote.  His fellow prisoners, even more bored than they are vicious, agree to act out the story as part of his kangaroo court.  Herein, we now see the inner story, based on the tales of Don Quixote, written by the real Cervantes in the early 1600s.

Milo Shapiro’s Stage and Cinema San Diego review of Cygnet’s MAN OF LA MANCHADon Quixote is a valiant knight-errant, champion over evil and defender of the downtrodden…or so he thinks.  In truth, our noble warrior is a charismatic, senile, older gentleman named Alonso Quijana who is lost in his fantasies of a more romantic time of chivalry.  He convinces his regular tag-along, Sancho Panza, to accompany him on his misguided quest for greatness.  Sancho, with genuine affection for Alonso (and knowing his befuddled friend will need a great deal of protection), gets a charge of excitement in his role as Quixote’s “squire” and from there the fun begins, especially when Quixote mistakes sharp-tongued prostitute Aldonza for the great lady of virtue whom he has sought.

Milo Shapiro’s Stage and Cinema San Diego review of Cygnet’s MAN OF LA MANCHALongtime local favorite (and artistic director for Cygnet) Sean Murray is solid as Quixote and vocally has the chops for this difficult part, including the ever-important anthem, “The Impossible Dream.”   Erika Beth Phillips, with her beautiful operatic voice, is a mixed case as Aldonza, who needs to be raw, smoldering, and pure spit-and-fire; Phillips needed more of that in her dialogue and especially in her big song “It’s All The Same,” which also seemed to challenge her vocally.  Still, Phillips nails a powerful attitude in “Aldonza” and turns in an enchanting, moving performance at the finale.

Bryan Barbarin is likeable as Sancho, but he lacks the loveable quirkiness necessary to make the sidekick such delightful comic relief.  As for the general cast, expect lovely, sweet harmonies from the muleteers in “Little Bird” and spot-on renderings of “To Each His Dulcinea” and “The Psalm” by Kürt Norby as the Padre.

Murray made wise choices to maximize his moderate staging, including a comical fight scene. He wisely moves an onstage atrocity out-of-view, which serves to heighten the tension, and features guitarists on stage for the overture, the intimacy of which helps to draw attention from the lack of trumpet power in the orchestrations.  As Quixote, Murray is great, but the straightforward production that he helmed lacks some ingredients necessary to make it anything more than the likeable show we see.

photos by Daren Scott

Man of La Mancha
Cygnet Theatre in San Diego (Regional Theater)
scheduled to end on August 17, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.CyngnetTheatre.com

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