Still Tilting After All These Years
WESTMINSTER, CA—SEPT 27, 2020—
The Rose Center Theater, as part of their LIVE musical concert series for the summer, presented "Man of La Mancha in Concert" this past Friday and Saturday evening (September 25-26) as a one-hour, live, outdoor concept musical, bringing back most of the original cast from 2015. Based on a book by Dale Wasserman, the show once again starred the protean Chris Caputo as the mad, errant knight, Don Quixote/Cervantes.
The show imagines the poet Cervantes imprisoned, about to face the Spanish Inquisition. To save his writings from being destroyed by fellow inmates, he tells the story of an elderly man who believes he is a knight, who, with his faithful servant Sancho, heads on a quest to right unrightable wrongs and tilt at giants that look a lot like windmills. The result is a journey from the realm of reality into fantasy, illustrating themes of honor, nobility of spirit, chivalry, grace, courage and idealism.
Cliff Senior plays Sancho, Melissa Cook is Aldonza/Dulcinea, Alexis Karol is Antonia, Tim Nelson is the Padre, Vincent Aniceto plays a dual role as the Governor and the Innkeeper, Mary Murphy-Nelson is the Housekeeper, Garrett Brown is the Barber and a Muleteer, and Ryan Salazar depicts Anselmo, as well as a Muleteer.
And they did it fully masked, while keeping their prescribed distance as set by government mandates. In addition, the audience was spaced out in six feet intervals, all enshrouded with their required mantles and face coverings, some breathless in anticipation of this classic show, some breathless from lack of oxygen.
Yet, although technically considered a concept staging of a musical, it definitely did not have the orthodox approach as with many concert revues with actors standing in front of music stands like statues singing sterile oratorios. These “Rose Outdoors” players created a stirring, moving production that annihilated all expectations.
Beautifully sung and passionately orchestrated with as much movement as anyone can marshal from an outdoor set-less stage, this edition still managed to mine much of the beauty and heart from one of the most glorious scores and emotionally-affecting scripts in American musical theater. It was an immensely lush songbook in truth—a vibrant fusion of Joe Darrion’s verve and Mitch Leigh’s sumptuous melodies consummating a Latin-meets-Broadway zest—from the shimmering "Dulcinea," the gently roiling "It's All the Same," the stirringly contemplative "Barber's Song," to a fiery, passionate "To Each His Dulcinea," and the Carnival-esque rumpus of "A Little Gossip."
This rousing, Spanish-inflected music cameo creation, headed by director and musical helmer Tim Nelson, is so effective that by the end you yearn to see the even deeper, polished, and more opulent show that would have been offered, had we been in more flexible times. You would see, if memory serves me right, an elaborate 17th Century dungeon full of fellow prisoners awaiting trial by the inquisition, an array of colorful costumes and ruddy figures, a stage full of magical reincarnations as Cervantes directs his play within a play, and a theater ready and willing to channel those masterfully spirited and compelling sambas to the back of the room and then back again in reverberation. Ahh, those were the days.
But it’s hard to imagine how much better Mr. Caputo could be in his depiction of Miguel de Cervantes as he renders his hero’s song and commanding presence throughout the evening, portraying both despair and triumph simultaneously. Becoming indelibly intertwined with two characters at once, his full-bodied baritone resounded so superbly in the night sky, in fact, that seemingly the large Oak tree on the other side of the stage fence began swaying in unison.
That gentle breeze also served to limn the fervor in Darion’s lyrics as Mr. Caputo nailed the anthem, “The Impossible Dream”—one of the last Broadway songs to become a pop hit in the 1960s—underscoring the pure joy of someone who truly believes that the pursuit of ideals is the ultimate reason for existing. But when ardor flowed out of his mouth in the paean “Dulcinea,” both time and respiration stopped for this outdoor audience.
Playing opposite him as the world-beaten Aldonza, Melissa Cook gives a smashingly salient vocal performance. She is one of those rare singing actresses who boasts not only a full belt when needed, but a full soprano extension, and when Ms. Cook ends her dazzling performance of “It’s All the Same” with a flight into the soprano stratosphere, or when she switches back and forth between registers in “Aldonza,” the effect is breathtaking. Ms. Cook then fills out the slighter but still lovely "What Does He Want of Me?" with a dead-brilliant gorgeous solo over an energetic bossa nova-like samba beat.
Completing the musical’s central triumvirate, Mr. Senior’s Sancho, a regional favorite, was appropriately affable, adoring and whimsical as the loyal servant with “a belly full of proverbs.” His sort of neo-vaudeville/Borscht/American TV comedian style approach to the role made the whole performance have a wonderful theatricality to it, particularly when he answers the question, “Why do you follow him?” with the improbable song, “I Really Like Him.”
Ryan Salazar and Garrett Brown, characterizing Anselmo and the Barber respectively, taunts Aldonza suggestively with their laudable duo of “Little Bird, Little Bird” — a gorgeously sardonic back and forth lyrical, with just a touch of dissonance. Mr. Brown immediately continues with another scene as the Barber, in which he masterfully transforms the jaunty rhythms of "The Barber's Song" into a care-free avant-garde novelty number, playing up the delusional Don Quixote’s fixation on the Barber’s shaving basin as the mythical golden helmet of Mambrino, which supposedly makes its wearer invulnerable. This ditty may not be one of the show's best-known, but for some reason “The Barber’s Song” has been stuck in my head since I left the theatre.
The scene following is of course more complex and fulfilling with full costume, armor and set, but when the Innkeeper (Vincent Aniceto) administers knighthood to the chivalrous Quixote, it’s a mind-numbing moment. The song, “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” by Mr. Aniceto becomes a mixed bag of tears and joy. It’s a trip down Sentimental Lane, knowing full well the bestowed title is feckless and the ceremony a sendup, but you still sit and root for our hero as if it were the real thing, because by now you have grown to love the character and do not want anything to actually hurt him. In my opinion, this scene is one of the greatest theatrical achievements in heart-string pulling of all time.
Directing the production, the golden-voiced Tim Nelson certainly has the goods for the role of the Padre, ringing the night air supremely with his “To Each His Dulcinea.” But there's moodiness aplenty in the trio, "I'm Only Thinking of Him," a quirky melody featuring Antonia, the niece to Cervantes (marvelously sang by Alexis Karol), the Padre, who serves as the confessional, and the housekeeper, Ms. Murphy-Nelson. In this posing, the song lends itself well to this couple of quibblers, who seem to be more concerned with the embarrassment Quixote's madness may bring them than with his actual welfare. But even without a set, the oft-times quirky Mary Murphy-Nelson still manages to put a smile on our faces.
First produced at the fledgling Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1965, it resonated with audiences’ consciousness at a crucial time in the country’s zeitgeist: two years after the Kennedy assassination torpedoed the dream of Camelot, in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle and just as the country was becoming embroiled in what would become a divisive war in Southeast Asia.
Winner of five Tony Awards in 1966 (cementing the stage career of former romantic lead Richard Kiley, “Kismet,” “No Strings”), and revived four times on Broadway, the frequently produced musical has somehow survived almost every production since—a testament to the strength of the work. Ironically, Mitch Leigh, who admitted he was not musically inclined and could not play an instrument, had no Broadway experience and whose claim to fame was simply a stable of advertising jingles (“Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee”). Unfortunately, “La Mancha” was his first and only hit, followed by a string of lead balloons that he produced with his own money.
But even so, “La Mancha” is perpetually on stage somewhere in regional theaters, community theaters or high school drama clubs, and continually triumphs as a top draw. This Rose Center Theater exhibition here is no exception.
“Man of La Mancha, The Concert” ran for two days, September 25-26 with a running time of one hour; no intermissions. Tickets are available for performances through Rose Center Theater’s website, www.rosecentertheater.com. Please join RCT for their next upcoming “encore” performance of “The Wiz,” playing this Wednesday, October 7th at 7:30pm. Tickets are $12-15 and should be purchased in advance online. The box office is not open day of performance due to Covid-19 guidelines.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report