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Still Speaking to Our Better Selves:
"Man of La Mancha"

Back when we saw the original “Man of La Mancha,” it was playing at the makeshift ANTA Theater on the NYU campus before making the move to Broadway. We were very young then, part of a generation that believed in such things as the possibility of good triumphing over terrible odds, and “Man of La Mancha” with its theme of moral heroism suited our youthful ideals. Leaving the theater, we felt uplifted, capable of dreaming impossible dreams. Recently, on a rainy Wednesday night some 36 years later, we took our seats at the Martin Beck Theater to see the new Broadway production of “Man of La Mancha” and wondered whether such a response could still be possible.

Happily it is. “Man of La Mancha” remains a soaring, age-defying paean to the potential of the human spirit. Mitch Leigh’s complex and rapturous score combined with Joe Darion’s lyrics – in turn humorous, brutal, romantic, and inspiring -- still stir the soul. And Dale Wasserman’s play within a play where Miguel Cervantes dramatizes his Don Quixote story before a jury of fellow prisoners while awaiting the judgment of the Spanish Inquisition still carries one along in the force of its dramatic sweep.

But this is a re-imagined “Man of La Mancha.”  The austere and abstract setting of the original production has been replaced with an enormous, dark and clanging 16th century dungeon at the bottom of a pit whose depth is suggested by a stairway that spirals upward to no visible end. With high tech wizardry, the dank common room where prisoners await trial transforms into inn, confessional, bedroom, scene on the plains of La Mancha. The ominous stairway rotates and splits to reveal a field of sunflowers; the high prison walls open up to a field of stars. It is a vision that conjures up gothic Spain: terrifying, earthy, passionate, sublime.

The sublime is well represented by the beautiful and talented Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who, as Aldonza/ Dulcinea, projects a tough sensuality with an affecting modern attitude that gives way to ethereal purity as Don Quixote reaches the part of her she never knew existed. Her mellifluous voice is lovely, particularly in its higher registers. Ernie Sabella is wonderfully amusing as the earnest and loyal squire Sancho Panza who struggles to steer his mad master through a hostile and cruel world. The rest of the cast performs to perfection from priest to muleteer to gypsy dancing girl.

And then there is Brian Stokes Mitchell, a leading man in the mold of Alfred Drake, who through his velvet baritone and deeply felt characterization firmly establishes himself as Cervantes/humanist-poet and Don Quixote/delusional would-be knight – the Man of La Mancha of our age.

Midway in the one-act play, when Aldonza, puzzled and frustrated by Don Quixote’s adoration, asks what he means by “quest,” the knight-errant responds with the song that from the start stepped out of the show and went on to become one of the most performed numbers in entertainment history. Beginning quietly and in almost explanatory tones, “To dream the impossible dream . . .,” Mitchell sings the song through. Then moving downstage center and up a key, he reprises in the fullness of his glorious voice, “To reach the unreachable star/though you know it’s impossibly far  . . .” ending in a rousing crescendo that brought the audience to its feet with cheers and applause exceeded only by the prolonged standing ovation that greeted the curtain call.

That a packed house welcomed this revival with such effusion is proof enough of the continued vitality of “Man of La Mancha,” a play that for all its entertainment pleasures is ultimately about transformation. Cervantes becomes Don Quixote, Aldonza/the whore becomes Dulcinea/the virtuous maiden, the prisoners become dreamers infused with hope, and we in the audience become people reminded of our better selves - even in this age of irony and disillusionment.

What an accomplishment for a play few expected to succeed the first time around that nevertheless caught fire and went on to win five Tony Awards including Best Musical.  Back when we saw it the first time around, Brooks Atkinson had already summed it up best: "'Man of La Mancha,'" the eminent critic had said, "is stage literature." And literature lives on.

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Where to See it:
“Man of La Mancha” is at the Martin Beck Theater, 302 West 45 Street
When to See it:
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8; matinees on Wednesday & Saturday at 2, Sunday at 3
To Order Tickets:
Tickets from Telecharge 212-239-6200
Credits
Book by Dale Wasserman, Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Ernie Sabella
Directed by Johnathan Kent; Choreographed by Luis Perez;
Set Design and Costumes by Paul Brown; Lighting by Paul Gallo;
Sound Design by Tony Meola
Produced by: David Stone, Jon B, Platt, Susan Quint Gallin, Seth M. Siegel, USA Ostar Theatricals

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are the authors of: It Happened on Broadway

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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