In the planning of her company’s 50th anniversary, Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte hoped to share her love of theater—and dreaming impossible dreams—with her faithful followers at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
What better way to accomplish those goals than a revival of “Man of La Mancha,” a tribute to artists and the spirit of possibility?
Since its 1965 debut, this unlikely Broadway hit has been revived there four times and placed its name among the most popular and recognizable musicals of all time. Perhaps it’s been done too often, to the point that even passionate theater fans often shrug or shudder at the announcement of a new production.
Fortunately for us, Monte has found a way to freshen it up, pull its power and emotions from the shadows and present us with a rich, vibrant and utterly original look at this fascinating tale.
And with a talented cast of 30 performers—including the musicians, many of whom are integrated into the action—at her disposal, this production feels and looks big enough to play on Broadway, something Monte was not likely going for, but we’ll take it just the same.
Dale Wasserman’s clever and emotional tale imagines 17th century author Miguel de Cervantes (Broadway veteran William Michals) being thrown in jail to await trial by the Inquisition and endearing himself to his fellow prisoners (not to mention distracting their intentions to mug him) by staging a play about his fictional hero, the brave, gallant and honorable Don Quixote. With his faithful servant Sancho (Blake Pfeil) at his side, he recruits his fellow prisoners to complete the cast and off he goes, tilting at windmills and confronting his own madness in the quest he so eloquently explains in the musical’s signature song, “The Impossible Dream.”
The play within a play takes place on a single, dramatic set: a cavernous prison at the bottom of a long staircase descending from a large iron gate (Sound Designer Steven L. Beckel adds dramatic and disturbing effects to give the gate some creaky authenticity).
The “cast” also includes Patrick Boll as Cervantes’ “prosecutor,” Drew Dix as the eventually sympathetic leader of the prisoners and Jane Pfitsch, who is recruited to play a prostitute, Aldonza, who the deluded Quixote believes is the Lady Dulcinea, to whom he has pledged eternal love and devotion.
The cast deftly handles Wasserman’s often extreme mix of comedy, drama and occasional horrors, including the rape of Aldonza. Several players display lovely voices in solo (Jeremy Lee Parrish, in particular, sang sweetly enough as a priest to bring tears to the eyes of some in the opening-night audience) and in groups (the evil Muleteers nail some four-part harmonies).
Ten musicians can be seen behind walls stage left and right, with some entering the action and becoming characters as well, adding yet another unique dimension to this production.
Pfitsch also sings well and brings the appropriate spitfire passion to Aldonza-Dulcinea and Pfeil is an endearing clown without going over the top. John Seidman, meanwhile, makes the most of his big scene as the barber.
But any production of “La Mancha” was and always will be measured on one pair of shoulders, and Michals makes a truly triumphant company debut as Cervantes-Quixote. He commands the stage with a powerful presence, yet he also summons a subtle comic touch and makes it look easy.
More importantly, he sings and speaks with a mind-blowing baritone that could shift tectonic plates and, when the time comes to bring the house down with “The Impossible Dream,” you may feel the foundation of the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre crumbing into dust.
Rest assured, like much in this splendid show, that feeling is an illusion, and the Kirby should hold up for the rest of the run. And when word gets out about Michals’ performance, don’t be surprised if that run breaks the box-office record of last year’s October production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Man of La Mancha” runs through Nov. 18 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. at Drew University, Madison. Tickets are $42 to $80 (student rush tickets $10 30 minutes prior to curtain, subject to availability). For more information, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org.