Monday, January 15, 2018

"Man of La Mancha"

Man of La Mancha
Dale Wasserman (Book); Mitch Leigh (Music); Joe Darion (Lyrics)

Edward Hightower as Don Quixote
Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Roberta Flack, Elvis, Cher, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are just a few of the many who have recorded what is surely one of the most enduring standards to emerge from an American musical.  And while every emotional-laden, recorded version of  “The Impossible Dream.” may have its merits, it is actually only in the context of the Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music), and Joe Darion (lyrics) 1964 musical, Man of La Mancha, that the inherent depths and powers of the song can be truly experienced. 

In the current Custom Made Theatre production of Man of La Mancha staged within the company’s intimate setting where audience members sit just a few feet from the cast, “The Impossible Dream” receives as near-perfect interpretation as I personally have ever heard.  The might of the song’s words, the clarity of its message, the emotional truths gleaned for our current difficult times become stronger and stronger with each subsequent reprise.  The successful delivery of that one iconic song is just one example among many why Custom Made’s funny, touching, and impactful production of Man of La Mancha is not to be missed -- no matter how many times in the past one has seen this universally loved, oft-revived musical on much larger stages.

That Director Brian Katz’s vision for Custom Made’s production of Man of La Mancha is one of immediacy, spontaneity, and engagement becomes apparent even before a word is spoken.  Shuffling prisoners is a spartan, dungeon-like setting (designed by Daniel Bilodeau) take the cue from one person’s thumping hand and begin one-by-one to join, using the floor, boxes, bodies, and sticks as their instruments.   Together, they orchestrate an increasingly complicated, drumming/clapping melody that grows steadily in intensity and volume and one that illustrates their desperation, their defiance, and yet their determination. 

It is into that sullen but sizzling setting that playwright, actor, and tax collector Cervantes enters with his manservant, brought there (as were all the other dejected around him) as part of an ongoing, church-state-led inquisition – his crime being to foreclose a monastery for not paying its taxes.  When his fellow prisoners charge him as “an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man” and threaten to put him on trial, Cervantes asks to speak on his own defense and do so as a “charade.”  Receiving permission from a sympathetic prisoner others call “The Governor,” Cervantes begins a transformation into a wandering knight-errant named Don Quixote, adding bushy eyebrows, scruffy beard, and hilarious but effective costume pieces (designed by Lindsay Eifert) befitting a traveling actor doing best with makeshift items from the trunk he has brought with him to this cell. 

And thus begins a play within a play as the prisoners join as actors in this charade trial.  Cervantes directs them as they enact a tale about an old man and country squire named Alonso Quijana, who through all his reading so many books about man’s injustices to others, has convinced himself that he must become a knight and “sally forth to right all.”

Dave Leon, Edward Hightower & Maurico Suarez
As soon as Edward Hightower goes from Cervantes to Don Quixote while singing “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote),” his trumpeting voice, radiant face, and fearless demeanor convince us that this is a knight on a mission we all want to believe in, no matter the obvious charade and ridiculousness of it all.  That he soon fights an ogre that is actually a windmill (directed and acted with both hilarity and pathos) only endears him more to the audiences of both plays in progress – us and the prisoners who now find themselves playing various parts within a wretched, roadside inn.  The more we get into the tale, the more Edward Hightower becomes a Don Quixote whose undaunted optimism, fool-hearty bravery, and incredible naiveté are only matched by his ability to deliver in a wonderful, convincing voice immediately recognizable tunes like “Dulcinea” and of course “The Impossible Dream” (the latter, stunningly performed by Mr. Hightower as the second act opens).

Anthony Aranda, Rachel Richman, Edward Hightower & Dave Leon
Every Don Quixote is only as successful as his loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza, is, too.  Dave Leon has the looks (short, somewhat round, and eyes as wide as half-dollar coins), the demeanor (respectfully blind to and denying of his master’s insanity), and the movements (something between a goofy waddle and a overly confident swagger) to pull off a picture-perfect Sancho.  And when he delivers songs such as “The Missive,” “I Really Like Him,” and “A Little Gossip,” his combination of angelic little-boy and impish Puck approaches along with a voice not afraid to belt when needed seals the deal:  This is the Sancho Panza with whom any Don Quixote would go into battle.

Joining the two principals of the story is an entire ensemble of well-cast members, many of whom not only play one or more roles but who also play a variety of instruments from Spanish guitar and flute to viola, melodica, and euphonium (the last being Sancho’s big brass way of announcing in a few notes his knight’s entrance or in hilariously giving himself a starting key for his next song).  Mark Dietrich magnificently directs the music of this orchestra of sorts in a way that fits so well their rag-tailed nature.

Rachel Richman
Rachel Richman plays the inn’s barmaid and resident prostitute, Aldonza, whom Don Quixote immediately dubs as his life-long, sworn love, Lady Dulcinea.  When in “It’s All the Same” she describes her life of loving too many men “with hatred burning in my breast,” Ms. Richman’s voice is both seductively sinful and pitifully innocent, both madly insolent and yet dutifully worthy of sympathy.  She gradually peels away the layers of disbelief and resistance to this kind but foolish knight’s adoration and his sense of unrelenting hope when there should be none, joining with Sancho in admitting “I Really Like Him.”  Ms. Richman continues transforming in believable and moving ways her Aldonza, until in the end once a prisoner again, she leads her fellow condemned in the final, moving “The Impossible Dream” as Cervantes is led away to the fate of the real, Inquisition trial he faces.  Kudos goes to Ms. Richman for a performance displaying life-justified harshness and hate but also new-found courage to love and be loved.

Jack O'Reilly & Jenny Matteucci
Emma Onasch, Jenny Matteucci, Maurice Suarez, and Jack O’Reilly step in to play (among other roles) people from Cervantes’ household and hometown who seek to rescue him from his world of disillusionment and bring him back to what they see as reality (no matter how insane the world around them actually is).  Singing “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” they combine in an exceptionally well-directed, funny set of confessionals to their parish’s Padre (Mr. O’Reilly) in which each employs delicious facial expressions and variations of sung vocals, resulting in one of the night’s best numbers.  As the Padre, Mr. O’Reilly also particularly shines in Act One’s closing number, “To Each His Dulcinea,” as he wonders in a sweet voice that delivers quite powerfully the sentiment that is perhaps the key message of the entire musical,
“How lovely life would seem if every man could weave a dream to keep him from despair.”

And it is that message that makes this current production of Man of La Mancha so timely and relevant for an audience in which many are surely wondering how do we keep hope alive and remain to any degree optimistic when daily Tweets, threats, and executive edicts seem to be undoing everything that many of us believe to be sacred.  This wonderfully conceived and executed Man of La Mancha by Custom Made Theatre reminds us indeed that
“And the world will be better for this,
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars!”

Rating: 5 E, "Must-See"

Man of La Mancha continues through February 17, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada

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