Written in 1965 by the previously (and since) unheard-of trio Dale Wasserman (book), Joe Darion (lyrics) and Mitch Leigh (music), Man of La Mancha is a musical drama inspired by the classic 1605 novel, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). The original production caused a sensation on Broadway as it was not expected to fair well with critics, but went on to national and international acclaim spawning countless touring and regional productions, but until now, none at the Stratford Festival. At long last, Stratford's AD, Richard Monette, has decided to tackle this champion and his first winning pass was to engage Broadway wunderkind Susan H. Schulman as director (The Secret Garden; Sweeney Todd). The touchdown is in the form of a spectacularly entertaining production but their splendid success is not won without some interference.
Don Quixote was originally written to satirize the chivalric pretensions fashionable in Spain at the time; however, there is a little of the real Cervantes in Quixote (and vice versa). Both men really believed in all those noble ideas and in the dream reality that lies beyond truth. Both, though beaten and scorned, always remained faithful to their dreams. As Cervantes' own life was as exciting and no more fortunate than his characters, the musical combines fact and fiction to develop a play within a play. Cervantes the tax collector (Juan Chioran), imprisoned and awaiting a call before the Holy Inquisition for foreclosing on a church, is subjected to a mock trial by his fellow prisoners. He defends himself by staging episodes from his unfinished manuscript of Don Quixote, the story of a delusional country gentleman, Alonso Quijana, who imagines himself to be a knight-errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha. As fellow prisoners help to act out the story with song and dance, Cervantes/Quijana/Quixote sets out with his manservant Sancho Panza (Bruce Dow), on a quest to right the unrightable wrong, to beat the unbeatable foe, etc. (feel free to break into song here). He mistakes a windmill for a giant, an inn for a mighty castle and a local whore named Aldonza (Cynthia Dale) for the lady Dulcinea, the object of his devotion. Touched in spite of herself by the sincerity of Quixote's adoration, Aldonza attempts to put his ideals of nobility into practice - only to be raped by a gang of muleteers. Meanwhile, Quixote's niece, Antonia (Susan Cuthbert), has dispatched her fiancé, Doctor Carrasco (David Ludwig), to bring her errant uncle home. By a trick (one of many brilliantly realized scenes in the production) he succeeds in restoring Quixote to sanity but in the process robs him of the will to live. Ending his tale, Cervantes has Aldonza reappear and remind the dying Quixote of the magnificence of his "impossible dream" - just as the jailers arrive to bring the author before the Inquisitors.
A musical stands or fails on the quality of the music, and Man of la Mancha succeeds beautifully because of the number of wonderful melodies penned by Leigh's novice hand. The showstopper, that didn't quite, is popular hit, The Quest (The Impossible Dream). Other songs include I, Don Quixote; Dulcinea; and Little Bird, Little Bird.
While the music soars, Chioran doesn't. Simply put, the man has a lyrical, trained and steady voice, but it's a completely underpowered instrument for this role, made famous by the likes of Richard Kiley and Robert Goulet. Director Shulman gets a wonderfully endearing interpretation of the old knight-wannabe from her star, so good in fact we forgave minor lapses of singing power, but when the finale of Impossible Dream arrived without the requisite vocal "pedal to the metal," it is a disappointment. A maxim of show business is to always leave 'em wanting more. This, Chioran does.
Despite a serious case of miscasting, the too-delicate Miss Dale fares somewhat better than her costar in the role of lusty, gutsy, base Aldonza. After a shaky start in the fiendishly difficult It's All the Same, her sweet mezzo grew stronger as the evening progressed. Dale's peaches-and-cream looks don't support the idea that her Aldonza is quite the filthy whore the role demands, but she has some fine moments with both Chioran and Dow. We will blame the director, not the actor, for the seriously wrong interpretation of Aldonza, the song that denies she is "that kind of a lady" and declares in the final bars, "I am Aldonza, the whore!" What on earth would cause her to raise her voice and her hands heavenward when declaring that ugly, debasing truth?
Dow's rotund and appealing Sancho stole everyone's hearts as he pranced and rode his way through the show, his interpretation made more appealing by his fabulous voice. Rounding out the vocal lineup were Cuthbert who upper-registers thrilled, and Padre, played by the always reliable Adam Brazier. Providing strong support and comic relief was (Stage Door Award winner) Mary Pitt, hilarious as Maria, the innkeeper's wife, and Douglas Chamberlain as the Governor.
Surrounding all this talent is the inventive design of Debra Hanson (designer), Kevin Fraser (lighting), Peter McBoyle (sound) and Michael Lichtefeld (choreographer). Each deserves special mention for recreating this dark and impenetrable dungeon with its drop stairs bringing terror with each appearance as their hollow clanging echoes through the theatre. Then, with a minimum of props (all apparently from the trunk Cervantes was incarcerated with), the players create a stable, a country church, and a Moorish gypsy camp. Although this adventure is told in the confines of a prison cell, the dancing opens the space to the great outdoors of the Spanish countryside. Horses created from rags and barrels (and gifted dancers Danny Austin and undetermined partner) sweep Quixote and Sancho around the stage to wildly approving audience applause.
An uneven production, perhaps, but thoroughly enjoyable, Man of la Mancha plays at the Festival Theatre, May 11 to November 8, 1998. For a visitor's guide, tickets, or accommodation, phone 1-800-567-1600.
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, first produced in 1960, is a historical drama depicting the conflict between Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, and his monarch, Henry VIII, over Henry's insistence in divorcing Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. This new Stratford Festival production combines the proven talents of director (Stage Door Award Winner) Marti Maraden with the prodigious gifts of Douglas Rain, as Sir Thomas Moore and creates pure magic on stage as the audience is transported back in time to an era where one lost his head for challenging the king.
A Man for All Seasons won five Tony Awards, more than any other play except that of another famous British import, Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. While Shakespearean in time and flavour, the play's historical atmosphere has a universal appeal. The story is famous. After nearly 20 years of marriage, Henry VIII's wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon, has failed to bear him a son. Henry (Benedict Campbell) is eager to divorce her and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn; however, the Church of Rome (the spiritual authority in England - and the entire Western World - at the time) and Cardinal Wolsey (Robert Benson) do not recognize divorce. Henry's friend, Sir Thomas More (Douglas Rain), a Privy Councillor and later Lord Chancellor, finds himself under great pressure both from the king and from his own family to lend his support to the divorce. Although he knows the risks of incurring the king's displeasure, More tells Henry that his conscience will not allow him to support his wishes: he can promise only not to overtly oppose them. At first, Henry is satisfied with this. However, as opposition to the divorce grows among the common people, More's deafening silence on the issue becomes an increasing embarrassment to the king. Henry eventually demands that More recognize Anne Boleyn's children as heirs to the crown and swear allegiance to them. When More refuses, he is arraigned on trumped-up charges of treason courtesy of lackeys Richard Rich (David Kirby) and Thomas Cromwell (John Dolan) and prepares for a fight for his life, one which history shows he lost.
Any production of this most interesting play will inevitably be compared to the great movie of the same name from 1968. Starring the incomparable Paul Schofield, the movie perfectly captures the imagination of the past and the hopelessness of More's predicament. Maraden's interpretation keeps the flavour and pace of the movie while the addition in the play of The Common Man (Brad Rudy), a narration device, helps interpret the action, characters and scene changes to the audience.
The production's setting during the English Reformation is designed by John Pennoyer with elegant 16th-century costuming enhancing the rather drab, but realistic colour palate of blacks and greys. Louise Guinand's effective lighting adds to the mood, especially in the river scenes and in the dreaded Tower of London.
Maraden's cast serve her well and transport us to a time and place that is at once romantic, and yet dreadful. Rain's remarkable performance gets off to a slow start, which only serves to amplify his acting in the second act, and trial scene, which we called "Schofield-standard." Rain's More is simply mesmerizing. In Campbell's short, but engaging scene, he creates an effective egotistical monarch, but his Henry is just too svelte to convince thoroughly. Supporting players are a mixed bag with Diane D'Aquila an effective doting wife as Lady Alice More, but Roy Lewis' Duke of Norfolk is the weak link in the chain. Bernard Hopkins uses his broad style to create a fascinatingly officious Spanish emissary, Signor Chapuys.
A splendid combination of timeless story, captivating script, talented cast and uncompromising production values provides another in Stratford's season of excellence.