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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Man of La Mancha
"Why should a man be well when he's dying? It's such a waste of good health."—Cervantes
Man of La Mancha
William Michals
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is marking its 50th anniversary with an auspicious season of one awesome production after another, including Henry IV Part One, The Liar, Measure for Measure, Oliver Twist. It therefore grieves me to report that the season has hit a stumbling block, call it flailing lamely at that musical about a windmill known as Man of La Mancha.

Even if you have seen this popular musical that in its time had a record-breaking run on Broadway beginning in 1967 or the fine revival in 2003, not to mention all the regional theater productions, this current one offers another opportunity to be thrown into a dark and gloomy dungeon along with outcasts, heretics and derelicts. Given this, however, one should expect an experience that is not quite as dull and desultory as the one directed by Bonnie J. Monte, this theatre's generally imagination-fired artistic director.

With the renowned bass/baritone William Michals (he played Emile de Becque in the Tony award-winning revival of South Pacific) making his debut at this theater in the duel role of Miguel d'Cervantes y Saavedra, the famed Spanish author and as his creation the tottering and senile knight-errant, the show should have proved a worthwhile experience –– even if looking at Michal's handsome, sturdily imposing figure required a real stretch of one's own imagination. Whether it was because I attended the first matinee after opening night or whether Michals was experiencing some vocal wear and tear, his tentative, unaffecting singing of the usually tear-wrenching "The Impossible Dream" was hardly the shining moment one might wish for — attested to by the simply polite audience response.

One waits in vain for any shining moments in Monte's reverently perfunctory staging that begins (as do all traditional productions) with Cervantes awaiting trial before the inquisition. To pass the time, he compresses his interminable novel into a fragmented fantasy putting himself into the role of Don Quixote. Even as Michals alluded to Quixote's impossible dreams with a comprehensible countenance, I sorely missed, despite his occasional half-hearted flourish and foray with a lance, the delusional bravura and comic poses of the near-tragic character.

Without harping back to those who have interpreted the role, let it be said that Michals succeeds, within the quasi-zarzuela cum Tin Pan Alley collaborative contents of the Dale Wasserman book, Mitch Leigh music and Joe Darion lyrics, in conveying the prerequisite solemnity, if not the power and poignancy that should/could define this complex character.

Miscasting is another woeful misstep and is particularly noticeable, indeed, perplexing, with Jane Pfitsch singing quite unacceptably the trollop Aldonza a.k.a. Dulcinea. Not only is the (admittedly un-singable) octave vaulting music written for the character out of her comfort range, it was her blonde, short, spiky haircut that made her look less like the fearless wench who cavorts with the male animals than Huck Finn after a rough night on the Mississippi. Pfitsch, who was so dazzling in looks and performance early this season at Clarice in David Ives' The Liar need not be concerned that this temporary fall into a dung heap will change my feeling regarding her talent. No choreographer is listed to take discredit for her participation in the surprisingly ineffective rape scene, or for the poor excuse for belly-dancing, as executed by Kim Sava and Lee Harrington, that nevertheless lifts the show out of its torpor.

Leigh's quasi-ethnic score, with is misplaced (by 200 years) use of the Darion's lyrics, both making a silly mockery of Cervantes' prose. I liked scenic designer Michael Schweikardt's evocative, dingy "common room for those who wait," including the obligatory stairs leading to it, that serves as a frame for the various episodes. The lighting design by Michael Giannitti, the earthy pallet of the costumes by Michelle Eden Humphrey, as well as the as the fine orchestral support, offers the dramatic textures that are missing from too many of the performers.

I would like to extend a bravo to Blake Pfeil, as Sancho, who is irresistibly endearing without resorting to tiresome shtick. All the multiple-assigned supporting roles are performed by a company that looked as if they would rather dream the impossible dream than to live it.

Man of La Mancha
Book by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh; Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast: William Michals (Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote), Darren Matthias (Captain of the Inquisition/Prisoner/Head Inquisitioner), Blake Pfeil (Cervantes' Manservant/Sancho), Drew Dix (The Governor, The Innkeeper), Patrick Boll (The Duke/Dr. Carrasco), Sean Buhr (Prisoner/Pedro/Moor), Jordan Laroya (Prisoner, Juan/Horse/Guard), John Gardner (Prisoner/Paco/Horse/Guard), George Abud (Prisoner/Joe/Moor with Oud), Jane Pfitsch (Prisoner/Aldonza), Kim Sava (Prisoner/Maria/Moorish Gypsy), Katy Hinson (Prisoner/Fermina/Flute), Lee Harrington (Prisoner/Antonia/Moorish Gypsy), Derin Altay (Prisoner, The Housekeeper), Jeremy Lee Parrish (Prisoner/The Padre), John Seidman (Prisoner, The Barber), Alex Domschot/Sean Harrington (Prisoner with Guitar), Anthony DeAugustine (Prisoner), Doug Oberhamer (Prisoner).
Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt
Costume Design: Michelle Eden Humphrey
Lighting Design: Michael Giannitti
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Sound Designer: Steven L. Beckel
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Rd., Madison, NJ
(973) 408- 5600
Tickets: $42.00 - $80.00
Performances: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays at 7:30 PM; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 PM; Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM.
From 10/17/12 Opened 10/20/12 Ends 11/18/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/21/12
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