Great songs highlight “Man of La Mancha” at The Playhouse.

Reaching for the possible dream


Mitch Leigh wrote wonderful Spanish-tinged melodies full of color, tenderness and charm for his 1964 collaboration with lyricist Joe Darion in Man of La Mancha. Hear them soar, sparkle and resonate in Omaha Community Playhouse’s lively, earnest production of the show.

They keep on coming, the stirring title song, the lovely “Dulcinea,” wonderfully intertwined “I’m/We’re Only Thinking of Him,” sweet “I Like Him,” folky “Little Bird,” dramatic “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,”  and of course, the underpinning message within indelible “The Impossible Dream” where Darion states what this experience tries to say to us. The tuneful context breathes life into everything and makes the hearing something worth remembering.

This multi-Tony winner has been acclaimed repeatedly since it first appeared off-Broadway and has gone on to become a theatre legend. That makes sense, given that Dale Wasserman’s script reprises  another legend, Miguel De Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

However, 1964 is a long time ago in our culture and in musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated, pungent, complex words and intricate music were far too far out for audiences of those days, for example. The elemental qualities of Man of La Mancha were much more part of the mainstream. Which worked well then, given that the tale is told in elemental ways.

The bones show. This classic needs fleshing out. Director Hilary Adams and her cast have major assignments. Wasserman has not given them much, in what often sounds like simple dialogue, rather than eloquent, despite an aim to create a story with multiple dimensions. As a consequence, it remains up to the performances to make this work best. Here everything looks and sounds capable but not exceptional.

Wasserman has claimed that he didn’t intend to simply delve into the essence of Cervantes’ work.That he wanted to write about Cervantes. This doesn’t look as if he did that successfully. His premise, that the writer, imprisoned by The Inquisition, is some kind of potential martyr or a convention-breaker feels implied rather than developed. Mostly this only resembles a re-visit to the novel. There is a sub-text, though: compassion for the elderly, especially if such people have trouble coping with reality.

Wasserman’s spurious set-up has Cervantes trying to convince fellow-prisoners that he is innocent of any crime by re-enacting that story. I suppose the point gets proven; the tale deals with innocent Quixote, subject to touching, colorful illusions and fantasies, meriting compassion and forgiveness. But Cervantes seems more shadow than substance, relative to much-better-developed Quixote.  

The crux of Wasserman’s aim is to say that reliance on imagination, non-rational behavior and beliefs can save our souls. A good point. But implied rather than obvious in the writing. Unless you latch on to “The Impossible Dream, ” which doesn’t get extrapolated much.   

The Quixote tale tells well, the major events performed with simple props and elemental movements as the prisoners, using their own imaginations, take on the characters. It helps to know the heart of the novel in advance, as many people do. But, given that this is a musical with many appealing and significant songs,you can’t expect a thoroughly detailed story.   

Cork Ramer gives a believable impression of Quixote/ne Alonso Quijana, his slender body implying the old man’s vulnerability. His resonant speaking voice may seem to contradict, but since Cervantes is supposed to be taking on that role, a somewhat authoritative tone seems valid. When singing, Ramer’s voice didn’t quite cope with the demands when I heard him, but the result does imply a kind of frailty. Also, at times, Ramer made Quixote sweetly sad.

Another major role is that of Sancho Panza played with genuine simplicity by Noel Larrieu while Jennifer Gilg took on the vocal demands of Aldonza/Dulcinea with skill but, when I attended, did little to define the character as a specific person.    

Much of Adams staging works really well. Especially with Darin Kuehler’s horse puppets, in the hands of cast members, leaving endearing impressions. And Jim Othuse’s set merits applause in its own right.

Background, given that Playhouse program books still tell readers nothing about the actual sources of productions: Dale Wasserman’s plays shone during the “Golden Age of Television.” And his Tony Award-winning adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has become famed. You may recall that this past March Chanticleer Theater produced it. More at: http://www.dalewasserman.com/

Mitch Leigh created music for a total of seven Broadway shows plus many commercials.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitch_Leigh)  while Joe Darion wrote lyrics for two other Broadway productions plus several Top-1o pop hits.( http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/19/theater/joe-darion-90-lyricist-of-man-of-la-mancha.html)

Bear in mind that to take on a show of such fame is a challenge, one where the brave may not dare to go. That is the quest, to reach for that star, no matter how far.

Man of La Mancha continues through Oct. 18, Howard and Rhonda Hawks Mainstage Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Weds.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sunday: 2 p.m. Tickets $20-$40. www.OmahaPlayhouse.org


Category: Art, Literary
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