Sunday, July 03, 2016

Impossible Dream Come True: Marriott's Modernized 'Man of La Mancha' Proves Wonderfully Quixotic -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Man of La Mancha
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru August 14

Even relatively casual Broadway fans are likely to know that the music and lyrics of The Sound of Music were written by Rodgers & Hammerstein, respectively, who also created Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel and The King and I.

With just a bit more affinity for classic musicals, one may be aware of Lerner & Loewe as the lyricist & composer of My Fair Lady, as well as Camelot and Brigadoon.

That Kander & Ebb wrote Cabaret and another monster hit, Chicago, is fairly common knowledge for aficionados like me, for whom Bock & Harnick are ingrained as the team behind Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello and the recently revived-on-Broadway She Loves Me. 

I also readily know that Jerry Herman wrote both the music and lyrics for Hello, Dolly!, Mame and some years later, La Cage aux Folles.

But though I have seen Man of La Mancha a few times over the years prior to last Wednesday's opening at Marriott Theatre, and know it to be one of the biggest, best and most beloved musicals of the 1960s, if you asked a week or two ago who had written the music and lyrics for it, I'd have drawn a blank.

And in knowing that Mitch Leigh composed the music and Joe Darion wrote the lyrics--with a book by Dale Wasserman, based on his earlier teleplay, I, Don Quixote,  which was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes' seventeenth-century masterpiece Don Quixote--even in having looked at Wikipedia, I can't name any other notable shows they created.

But Marriott's highly imaginative, wonderfully sung version directed by Nick Bowling aptly reiterated why Man of La Mancha stands among the pantheon of the greatest musicals ever created.

And what makes this rendition so terrific is that Bowling, his team and the performers weren't afraid to do a bit of inventive re-creating of the storied title, which beyond the need to accommodate the venue's theater-in-the-round isn't often the case at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire.

Not precisely a musical version of Don Quixote yet pretty much so in its basic gist--or so I'm given to understand, having never read it--Man of La Mancha opens with Cervantes as a character, who along with his trusty sidekick, Sancho, has been thrown into a dungeon during the 16th century Spanish Inquisition.

But Bowling, supported by set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and longtime Marriott costume designer Nancy Missimi, had the novel--and somewhat daring, given the renown of the musical as created--idea to dress the prisoners in modern garb and contain them within a holding cell reminiscent of (perhaps) the Cook County Jail.

This gives the 1964 musical set in the late 1500s a good deal of contemporary resonance in 2016, not to mention theatrical freshness.

But as Cervantes, soon to face interrogation by Inquisition heavies, first aims to defend himself to his fellow prisoners, he conveys--abetted by song--the storyline of Don Quixote, which has an old man named Alonso Quijana setting out to find adventure and right wrongs as Don Quixote de La Mancha.

With Cervantes/Alonso/Don Quixote all played by the same person--Broadway vet Nathaniel Stampey is outstanding here--and the prisoners acting out characters encountered on his quest but also inter-cutting as their real selves, the narrative can get a bit confusing.

This sometimes muddy blurring of fantasy and reality is exacerbated at Marriott as the modern clothing is retained even as Quixote's quest feels considerably more of a bygone age than the jail scenes.

But I think imprecise yet uplifting delusions are kind of the point of Don Quixote and Man of La Mancha.

And there is so much superb about the musical and this production that a bit of wondering of "who was so-and-so as a prisoner and why was he doing that in the quest scenario?" does little to diminish one's overall enjoyment.

Perhaps oddly given that they never seemingly reached these heights again, Leigh & Darion created one of those rare, special musicals where virtually every song is sensational.

These include the initial proclamation by Cervantes-cum-Alonso, "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote," "It's All the Same," superbly sung by Danni Smith as a brash barmaid named Aldonza who Don Quixote musically dubs "Dulcinea," and Sancho's explanation for supporting his master's quixotic notions, "I Like Him," which Richard Ruiz makes delightfully likable in Lincolnshire.

Other gems such as "I'm Only Thinking of Him," "Knight of the Woeful Countenance" and "To Each His Dulcinea" showcase Lillian Castillo, Craig Spidle and James Harms, respectively, performers I've repeatedly enjoyed on the local theater scene.

It was also fun to see brothers Matt and Andrew Mueller onstage at the venue where a year ago they were part of a Sarah Siddons Society celebration of their Tony-winning sister Jessie Mueller and their talented family.

The modern costuming conceit probably worked best, most acutely, with Danni Smith's take on Aldonza/Dulcinea, semi-shaved hair and all. The dichotomy between Aldonza's tough exterior, the terrible invective & outright assault she endures, Smith's luxuriant vocals and her character's stirring perseverance greatly exacerbate the message that we can all be many things; some outwardly, some inwardly, some a combination thereof with a touch of fantasy.

And the show's theme of continuing to seek light amid darkness--which demands that I stop here and note yesterday's passing of the inspiring Holocaust survivor/chronicler Elie Wiesel--is best crystallized by the wondrous song, "The Impossible Dream."

To dream ... the impossible dream 
To fight ... the unbeatable foe
To bear ... with unbearable sorrow 
To run ... where the brave dare not go 

To right ... the unrightable wrong 
To love ... pure and chaste from afar 
To try ... when your arms are too weary 
To reach ... the unreachable star 

This is my quest, to follow that star 
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far 
To fight for the right, without question or pause 
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause 

And I know if I'll only be true, to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm, when I'm laid to my rest 
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 star

This is one of my favorite of all Broadway songs and Stampey--who has starred in The Lion King
both on Broadway and in London--quite simply nailed it.

He was goose bump-inducing superb, and well-deserved the extended applause his rendition received. (Shame on the woman near me who's grunting along with the song distracted from a blissful moment.)

So between the show itself, Marriott Theatre's inventive production of it and some truly superb performances, particularly in the lead roles, this is one helluva Man of La Mancha.

For the ages. Young, old and in-between. Past, present and future.

And even if I'm not aware of anything else Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion created for the stage, this singular masterpiece would suggest that their own quest was rather substantially and appreciably fulfilled.

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