First produced on Broadway in 1965, Man of La Mancha has enjoyed four revivals since. In each reimagining, this musical is still relevant because of the themes raised by the tragedy of a man whose values and perceptions are a fantasy worth preserving in a cruel world. Director Debbie Lake brings this thought-provoking musical (or as Lake rightly dubs it, a “play with music”) to Bay City Players. A play within a play, the musical is framed by the narrative of Miguel de Cervantes as he waits for the Spanish Inquisition. Motivated to delay his cellmates from stealing his belongings and burning his manuscript, or perhaps to simply engage them in the creative arts, Cervantes tells the tale of Don Quixote. Thus begins the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality as the musical causes the audience to wish for a world in which a man of honor defends the less fortunate and a woman of disrepute can shed the perceptions of society and rise to the ideal standard held by someone who loves her. The audience, however, is time and again jerked back into harsh reality as we consider whether such an idealistic worldview is foolish or even delusional, until the final turn of the musical provides us with hope. If we can simply strive to make the world better, dream the impossible dream, then maybe that is where we find a life worth living.
The set for Bay City Players’ production of Man of La Mancha, designed by James Pawloski, Michael Wisniewski, and Leeds Bird is gorgeous and practical. We are transported to a dungeon in Spain complete with a working drawbridge. There is a raised platform center stage that was very functional for levels and easily traversed. Downstage is anchored on each side by two structures shaped like wells, one holding a fire and another water. A treasure chest, wooden crates, doors, and sawhorses are brilliantly used to create the multitude of settings in the play within the play. The torch lights and the banner for the inn are nice touches as well. The costumes and props also contribute to the creation of a play being performed from out of a chest. The only stark exceptions to this are the mirrored shields in the Knight of the Mirrors scene and the equine masks, which do not quite fit into the world the designers have created.
The strength of this show was in the vocal performances of the actors and musicians, led by musical director James Pawloski. The singing was strong and the sound was perfectly balanced between singers and musicians. Zach Mason as Sancho Panza/Manservant was a delight as the blindly loyal fool. His performance was jovial and lovable, if a bit cartoonish at times. Aaron Robinson Haines had an energy that heightened every scene he was a part of, and he was especially creepy in “Little Bird, Little Bird”. William Meier as the Innkeeper/Governor, Jake Monroe as Padre, and John Tanner as Duke/Dr. Carrassco, all had excellent presence in their performances. David King, when portraying Cervantes, naturally captured the presentational style of a gentleman poet motivated to save his prized manuscript. As Don Quixote, a few moments of confusion would cause the audience to question whether Quixote/Quijana is foolishly idealistic or a man suffering from dementia or madness. A brilliant moment where King does accomplish this was when Quijana, on his deathbed, is remembering his alter ego. King is convincingly stricken with confusion and then revelation. More authentic moments like this from many of the performances would blur the lines between the two stories of this “play within a play.”
In casting Laura Brigham as Aldonza/Dulcinea, the key character representing the conflict between reality and fantasy, Lake has found an actress who brings the depth and complexity to a character who has every reason to remain jaded. Brigham brings a swagger and a bawdiness essential to a character who is not the ingenue you might find in a typical musical. She is incredibly believable when she is staunchly pessimistic and pragmatic. It is, however, difficult to believe Aldonza’s willingness to become hopeful over years of abuse. The show would benefit from seeing Aldonza’s “armor” slip, more moments of vulnerability to compliment the toughness and pride Brigham brings to the character. Still, when Aldonza does decide to accept Quixote’s ideals and is raped because of it, Brigham’s anguish devastates the audience.
This onstage rape scene is masterfully choreographed by Holly Bills. It is disturbing without being gratuitous. Another outstanding piece of choreography is the belly dancing of the gypsies. Some of the other dance and fight choreography needs just a bit more attention. There are times where the actors seem to be waiting, tied to a spot until the music catches up and they can move again. The choreography of the horse and donkey seems as though they are greatly inhibited by their masks.
Overall, Bay City Players’ production of Man of La Mancha is an enjoyable performance with strong singers, a talented orchestra, and some endearing performances.
Laura Brigham’s performance challenged my thinking. How much more impactful and relevant would this musical be if the audience gets to see Aldonzo’s journey out of trauma into hope? The final scene in which Aldonza completely accepts her new identity as Dulcinea could be an empowering choice to accept all of who she is and what has happened to her. Without seeing that journey, the audience just has to blindly accept that Aldonza has changed without knowing really why. But I suppose then this musical would have to be called Woman of La Mancha. Someone write that musical please.
Additional credits: Anne Kukla (assistant director), Joan Kinnett and Kevin Cole (rehearsal pianists), Greg Burke (producer), Judy Harper (stage manager), Cathy Gibboney (assistant stage manager), Michael Wisniewski, Erin Frye, and Cathy Gibboney (set decoration), Doris Perry, Cindy Moelter, and Rhonda Branch (costumes), Elizabeth Dewey (equine masks), David Newsham (lighting design/execution), Tom Randolph (sound design/execution), Darby Gwisdala and Elizabeth Dewey (props), Lauren Klett (makeup)
Performances: May 2-5 and 9-12; Thursday - Saturday at 7:30 PM; Sundays at 3 PM
Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 989-893-5555 or online http://baycityplayers.org/tickets/