Set during the Spanish Inquisition, Man of La Mancha is a musical written in 1965 which follows Miguel de Cervantes as he is thrown into a dungeon while awaiting trial. He attempts to win over his fellow prisoners by opening his trunk of props and costumes (his most prized worldly possession) and telling them the story of Don Quixote. The score features some of the most iconic songs of the musical canon, including The Impossible Dream, Dulcinea, and the title song, Man of La Mancha.
Along the way, Cervantes inspires the band of misfits to have hope for their future, most notably a brash woman named Aldonza who has seen her fair share of the worst humanity has to offer and is understandably jaded.
Direction of this production by Debbie Lake kept blocking varied throughout the show, and her attention to detail was impeccable. There were some elements (projections, props, etc) which seemed to come from a different world than the one she created, but overall, her production was visually and emotionally striking.
Musically speaking, both the orchestra and the cast sounded beautiful on opening night, and the simple acapella moments were well-directed. The cast was vocally very strong, though I sometimes wished the actors and the instrumentalists alike would worry less about sounding “pretty” and instead throw caution to the wind and play/sing with wild abandon.
David King’s turn as Cervantes/Don Quixote was honest, sweet, and noble. His baritone voice was more than capable of handling the challenge of these songs, and he earned well-deserved cheers from the audience at the end of The Impossible Dream. King’s performance was maybe a little too rooted in realism, and as an audience member, I wanted to see Cervantes lose himself in the character he creates.
Aldonza/Dulcinea, is one of the more vocally demanding roles for women in musical theatre. Laura Brigham was up to the task, using her vocal acrobatics to navigate the many flips between belting mezzo and lyric first soprano. The role is no less demanding on the acting side of things. This show is really about Aldonza’s character arc from cynicism to hope, and while Brigham was appropriately aggressive at the beginning of the show, her performance may have benefitted from her showing a little more vulnerability as Quixote chipped away at her emotional armor. Brigham is an experienced actress, so such nuance was likely there, but didn’t play to where I was sitting.
As Sancho Panza, Quixote’s squire, Zach Mason gives a delightfully goofy performance full of great energy. Add to that his beautiful tenor voice, and it was easily a standout performance of the evening.
Many members of the ensemble also took their turns in the spotlight. Performances of note include William Meier as the innkeeper, Jake Monroe as Padre, John Tanner as the Duke, and Michael Wisniewski as the Barber.
In general, the ensemble seemed to come alive when it was their time to shine, only to become silent bystanders during the remainder of the show. These prisoners of the inquisition have varied pasts and deep character possibilities, and seemed to shy away from making bold choices to enhance the storytelling. Many of the prisoners seemed to “jump in” to Cervante’s theatrics a little too enthusiastically and didn’t embrace the dirty, misanthropic traits of someone who has been vilified by humanity.
While I applaud the decision to use the cast to move scenery, actors sometimes got too caught up in the mechanics of the scene changes and let their characters drop. The same issue occurred during combat scenes which needed the expertise of a fight choreographer. Overall, being emboldened to make stronger character choices would give this show the edginess and gusto it is sometimes lacking.
The set design was both practical and beautiful, giving the actors plenty of space and levels to play on. It was enhanced by the lighting design by David Newsham which also guided the audience through the ins and outs of the story with the use of subtle level changes. Costumes complemented the look onstage with a nice blend of rich and muted tones, though every costume could have benefited from being dragged through the mud a few times.
At its heart, Man of La Mancha is a story about the transformative power of storytelling. It shows even the most jaded audience member how art and song can give hope to those that are hopeless. During these tumultuous times, who couldn’t use a little dose of hope? Bay City Players production of Man of La Mancha will continue May 3-5 & 9-12. Tickets can be found at online at baycityplayers.com.