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Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 17, 2019

James Patterson, Patrick John Moran (center) and cast of Man of La Mancha
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

With the closing production of its 2019 season, STAGES St. Louis has brought a classic to the stage with a great deal of energy and heart. Man of La Mancha may be a much-staged musical from the 1960s, but in this remarkable production, the energy and strength of the casting makes it seem brand new. That, and a particularly striking set.

Man of La Mancha, inspired by Miguel de Cervantes classic 17th Century novel Don Quixote, is one of those shows that I had heard the music to many times, but I had never actually seen it onstage before. I wore out my cassette tape of the cast album when I was a teenager, and I even read the script, but I never managed to catch a production, until now. I can’t think of a better full-scale introduction to the show than this one. It’s ideal, in many ways, considering the aspirational tone of it, encouraging the challenging of norms and pursuit of seemingly unattainable goals, and overall a sense of basic human dignity that is celebrated, while also showing the dehumanizing effects of forced conformity and rigid societal expectations. The story also has has a play-within-a-play structure that works especially well in introducing and reiterating its themes. It follows the story of writer/actor Cervantes (James Patterson), who is sent to a holding cell, joining many others, awaiting an audience with the infamous Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, he is put on “trial” by his fellow inmates, led by the stern but fair “Governor” (Steve Isom) and the more cynical Duke (Ryan Jesse). In his own defense, Cervantes and his manservant (Patrick John Moran) begin a theatrical telling of the work-in-progress story of Don Quixote, employing theatrical makeup and props to help tell the story as Cervantes “becomes” Quixote and the manservant becomes Quixote’s devoted squire, Sancho Panza. The cellmates are then incorporated into the story, with the Governor becoming a kind but weary innkeeper, the Duke becoming the skeptical Dr Carrasco, who is engaged to Antonia (Julie Hanson), the niece of the ailing old man, Alonso Quijano, who sees himself as Quixote. The seemingly impossibly idealistic Quixote sees the world very differently than those around him–a small country inn is a castle, its Innkeeper is the Lord of the castle. Scullery wench Aldonza (Amanda Robles) is seen as a noble lady, Dulcinea, much to her own consternation and to the ridicule of a group of surly and eventually abusive Muleteers. A barber’s shaving basin, which the barber (Ryan Cooper) wears on his head as he travels, is seen as the coveted “Golden Helmet of Mambrino”, and Quixote is determined to prove himself worthy and attain a formal knighthood. He is seen as foolish and even dangerous by many around him, including his own family who try to bring him back to his senses, as well as the Muleteers who belittle him and, at first, Aldonza who finds herself gradually fascinated with this odd stranger who treats her like a lady when seemingly everyone else in her life has treated her as a commodity.  The overall message of the show seems to be mostly about dreams, and the effects of seeing people as who they can be versus what society expects and/or forces them to be. Quixote is an intriguing figure, who can be seen as either a hero or a fool, or as both at once. Also, there’s an overall theme of challenging convention that rings true with the show’s 60s origins, and the tone of the piece, while gritty at times, is ultimately about hope and potential, with the oft-recorded song “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” as its theme. The score features many other memorable songs as well, from the stirring title song to the ballad “Dulcinea” to various comical songs to the blistering “Aldonza”. It’s a show that runs the gamut of emotions, with a tone that’s alternately comic and dark, with some harrowing depictions of violence, and abuse as well as stark representations of poverty and authoritarian oppression. It’s seen as a classic musical with an uplifting score, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and this production shows that with credible skill and a first-rate cast.

Patterson leads the cast with authority, charm, and a powerful voice in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote, bringing the audience along on his idealistic journey as well the occasional sharp reminders of the reality in which he lives. He’s got a great rapport with the truly excellent Moran as the devoted, supportive Sancho, as well. Moran’s performance is a notable highlight, as well. Also strong is Robles as the mistreated, increasingly conflicted Aldonza, who struggles between wanting to believe what the world has always told her about herself vs. the enticing words of the kindly but seemingly foolish Quixote. Other standouts include Isom in contrasting roles as the authoritative Governor and the well-meaning Innkeeper; Jesse as the challenging Duke and determined Dr Carrasco; and Sean Jones as the brutal leader of the Muleteers, Pedro. It’s a strong cast all-around, with much energy and musical ability, along with some remarkable dancing expertly choreographed by Dana Lewis.

Technically, this is the most impressive production I’ve ever seen at STAGES, with its remarkably detailed, stunningly evocative set by James Wolk and fantastic lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There’s a strong sense of theatricality about this production, and Brad Musgrove’s detailed costumes lend to that atmosphere especially well, along with the well-paced staging, especially notable in the thrilling transition as Cervantes puts on his makeup and becomes Don Quixote before our eyes. The overall musicality is plainly evident as well, with musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert and strong voices all around.

Man of La Mancha as a show is what I expected it to be, and more. This production at STAGES is so finely staged that I was able to get the 60s tone of it while also seeing it as enduringly timeless. There’s more darkness here than you may expect, but the overall theme is one of perseverance and hope. It’s an “Impossible Dream”, perhaps, but STAGES has brought out the possibilities of this show with clarity and emotion. This one is not to be missed.

Patrick John Moran, James Patterson, Amanda Robles, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Man of La Mancha at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 6, 2019

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