Centre, from left: Steve Ross as Sancho Panza, Robin Hutton as Aldonza and Tom Rooney as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Reviewed by James Karas
For its second musical, the Stratford Festival has chosen Man of La Mancha and staged it in the smaller Avon Theatre. It is a well done production with excellent singing and it captures the spirit of the worlds of Don Quixote with a side glance at his creator Miguel de Cervantes.
Man of La Mancha is a play-within-a-play in which Cervantes is thrown into prison by the Spanish Inquisition for being an honest tax collector. The other prisoners put the writer on trial and he defends himself by reenacting the story of Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza.
It is a brilliant theatrical device because the musical can be produced on a single set with whatever props area available to Cervantes the prisoner and emphasizes the fact that all the events are imagined by Don Quixote.
Tom Rooney becomes the lithe agile, intelligent and quick-witted Cervantes, a poet by avocation, a tax collector by profession and a prisoner by the whim of the Spanish Inquisition.
Cervantes in order to defend himself at his trial by the other prisoners becomes Alonso Quijana, a poor man from La Mancha. Rooney/Cervantes/Quijana puts on a beard, a wig and some makeup and becomes a straggly, pathetic looking man who wants to be a Knight Errant long after the age of chivalry. He becomes Don Quixote who is a dreamer, a fool, an idealist, a madman and in fact an entire facet of humankind. Rooney does superb work in representing the multifaceted man, indeed, men.
Sancho Panza represents another facet of humanity, practical, loyal, sensible and with an instinct for survival. Steve Ross is a natural comic and he is wonderful and hilarious as the faithful Sancho.
The other prisoners tolerate or play along with Cervantes in the telling of his tales. There is a stageful of colourful characters all of them involved in the marvelous double illusion of actors playing roles playing roles.
Aldonza is the rough-hewn prisoner who becomes a serving woman and prostitute at the inn (a castle in Quixote’s imagination) where Don Quixote and Sancho stop. Aldonza is transformed into Dulcinea, the idealized woman of chivalric pursuit. Robin Hutton shows all he rough edges of Aldonza but also displays “Dulcinea’s” humanity.
The brigands in the jail and in Don Quixote’s story are violent men who do not hesitate to abuse people and probably rape Aldonza. The Governor of the prison/Innkeeper (Shane Carty) shows decency in an indecent world.
Director Robert McQueen and Designers Douglas Paraschul (set) and Dana Osborne (costumes) do not shy away from the ugliness, cruelty and inhumanity of Cervantes’s world. That makes his quest to set every wrong right and fight for justice all the more delusional, ironic and touching.
The dingy prison shows a huge windmill at the back, the eternal symbol of Don Quixote’s hopeless fight against “the enemy” the dreaded Enchanter (Shawn Wright). The real world is represented by a set of steps that hang above which are lowered when the captain of the Inquisition descends among the prisoners.
Man of La Mancha has many musical numbers and dance routines and they are done well. Like many other musicals, it has one song that stands out and in this case it is the famous “The Impossible Dream.” It has become an anthem for the pursuit of idealism, the fight against injustice, the dream of a better world and conquest of imposable obstacles.
As you watch this exceptional production of Man of La Mancha and its worlds of degradation, cruelty and injustice, with its humour, illusions and delusions, with its songs and dance routines, you will have a something to think about and be grateful for a terrific night at the theatre.
Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music), Joe Darion (lyrics) opened on May 29 and will run in repertory until October 11, 2014 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca 1-800-567-1600