On Stage: With Don Quixote

by Chuck Conconi

Musical ‘Man of La Mancha’ will attract a variety of new audiences to Shakespeare Theatre Company.

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Man of La Mancha, directed by Alan Paul. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Man of La Mancha,”
directed by Alan Paul. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is dedicated to the works of Shakespeare and classical theater, and with the present production of “Man of La Mancha,” proves that one of the great musicals of the mid-20th Century deserves to be performed in the company’s Harmon Hall showplace.

“Man of La Mancha” director Alan Paul, who also directed last year’s first Shakespeare Company musical – “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” – has assembled a powerful cast lead by Australian baritone Anthony Warlow. And when the opera-trained Warlow, as the endearingly mad old man, Don Quixote, sings “The Impossible Dream,” an emotion-filled stillness settles over the audience.

“Man of La Mancha” may be 50 years old – it opened on Broadway in 1965, won five Tony Awards and ran for 2,328 performances, but it has a feeling of freshness in this Shakespeare Theatre production.

Warlow, as the hapless Don Quixote, is off on a quest. He envisions himself to be a chivalrous knight seeking adventure, slaying monsters and defending fair ladies. Warlow moves commandingly throughout the back and forth of what is a play within a play. Loosely inspired by Miguel de Cervantes 17th Century novel, the story begins when Cervantes is imprisoned by the Inquisition.

He is a man who has failed as an actor, author, soldier and tax collector. He has been sent to the Inquisition dungeon because as a tax collector he foreclosed on a monastery. In the dungeon he has with him his trusted servant and his belongings, including a trunk with theatrical props and costumes. Most importantly, however, is a manuscript he values and that his fellow inmates, in a mock trial, threaten to burn. His defense is to enact a play. He then transforms himself into the Don Quixote who names his loyal servant Squire Sancho Panza. Nehal Joshi as Sancho defends both his Cervantes and Don Quixote with compassion and humor. He explains it in his song, “I Really Like Him.” The song helps convey the concern and affection for Quixote and his witless quest to be a medieval knight dedicated to God and chivalry.

His madcap wandering adventures are mostly disastrous, beginning with the familiar tilting with windmills. Along the way, Quixote comes to a tavern he fantasizes to be a castle and believes the innkeeper is a king that can properly dub him a true knight. It is here that he sees the tavern wench, part-time prostitute Aldonza (Amber Iman), who to him is the elegant, fragile Lady Dolcinea. Iman, a graduate of Howard University, has a lovely voice that is especially poignant when she sings the cynical, plaintive “What Does He Want of Me?”

The dungeon set, designed by Allen Moyer, is a towering, grim, metal grid. It reflects the hopelessness of the prisoners who mill about in a common area. The gritty, and sometimes colorful costume’s designed by Ann Hould-Ward, are changed on stage from what is available, and often from elements of Cervantes’s theatrical trunk. Since everything takes place on the minimalist dungeon set, lighting is of importance and Robert Wierzel, the lighting designer, effectively sets the focus that controls the varying moods of the production.

Music Director George Fulginiti-Shakar conducts the 11-piece orchestra from a corner of the theatre balcony. The Mitch Leigh music and Joe Darion lyrics are both heroic and at times plaintive and cynical, as in the lilting but cruel “Little Bird, Little Bird.” There are echoes of traditional Spanish music, complemented by the familiar runs of the orchestra’s lone guitar.

As it was originally designed, “Man of La Mancha” runs one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. And for next year, Paul is planning to direct his next musical, Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate,” this one with a direct Shakespearian take off of “The Taming of the Shrew.” There is the odd coincidence that Cervantes and Shakespeare were contemporaries and legend has it they died on the same day.

These musicals are good for the box office, in that the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s venture into these Broadway hits certainly will attract different audiences. That may obviously attract audiences to other Shakespearian production, but it is also a recognition of the theatrical importance of the American Broadway musical tradition.

“Man of La Mancha continues through April 26 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St., NW. Tickets are $20-$115 and are available at 202-547-3230 or online

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