Reviewed by George Basler
Man of La Mancha, which is being presented by Half Light Theatre, is an old-fashioned musical in the best sense of the word.
The show trumpets idealism and hope in the face of inhumanity and degradation. That’s a welcome relief in an era that can be marked by skepticism, cynicism and the downright nastiness that pervades social media.
Moreover, the musical is filled with well-crafted Broadway songs, notably “The Impossible Dream,” which retains its emotional resonance even after being played to death when Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway way back in 1965.
The Half Light production, which opened this past week (April 7-9) at the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton, is a strong one that hits all the right emotional notes.
Under the direction of Jeffrey Wahl, the show avoids the pitfalls of being overly sentimental or pretentious in conveying its message that we should leave the world a little better than when we found it. Instead it’s filled with honest feeling from the opening to the moving finale.
The success is no small accomplishment. The original Broadway production — written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion — was a massive hit, but subsequent revivals have been less successful. And a movie version starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren was a leaden flop.
But there is nothing leaden about Half Light’s small scale, but compelling, production. The musical requires strong singing voices and solid ensemble acting, and Half Light’s production delivers in both categories. A seven-piece orchestra, conducted by Wahl, provides solid accompaniment.
The musical is essentially a play within a play. The action takes place in a Seville prison circa 1594 during the good old days of the Spanish Inquisition. Don Miguel de Cervantes, the famous author and less famous tax collector, has been tossed into prison after foreclosing on a monastery for non-payment of taxes (not a good career move). Accompanying him is his faithful manservant, Sancho Panza.
To stop his fellow inmates from stealing his manuscript and possessions, Cervantes tells the story of a Spanish landowner, Alonso Quijana, who goes mad at the world’s injustice and transforms himself into the knight errant Don Quixote. As Quixote embarks on a quest with his “squire” (Sancho), the prisoners become actors in the play. The action moves back and forth between the prison cell and Cervantes’ imagination.
The part of Cervantes/Don Quixote requires an actor who can command the stage, and Brad Morgan fits the bill here. Morgan effortlessly switches from the world-weary Cervantes to the deluded, but sympathetic, Don Quixote. His voice is a powerful one that also conveys the emotional resonance of each of his songs. That’s especially the case with “Dulcinea,” the show’s main ballad, and “The Impossible Dream,” the show’s signature song.
Making “The Impossible Dream” sound fresh is a difficult job. Let’s face it: Assorted crooners have beaten the song to death over the years, and it’s acquired the reputation (unfairly, I think) of being maudlin pap. But Morgan’s performance makes the song compelling.
Missy Harris is equally good as Aldonza, the kitchen maid whom Don Quixote imagines as Dulcinea, his lady love. Harris catches the character’s bitterness and self-loathing but also conveys her vulnerability and pain. That makes her transformation at the end of the musical believable and moving.
A positive surprise is that there is no discernible drop-off in quality from the lead performers to actors in secondary roles. The cast is strong from top to bottom.
Chris Nickerson provides comic relief as Sancho Panza and has a singing voice that matches the character. In his hands, Sancho is not a simple buffoon but a worldly-wise observer who nonetheless accepts and loves his master.
The characters of the padre and Quijana’s housekeeper and niece are underwritten and thankless roles, but Jenn Perkins, John Carroll and Jana Kucera bring first-rate singing voices to the tough task of playing them. They do an especially good job with their main number, “I’m Only Thinking of Him.”
Bassem Eldakar is suitably menacing as a cynical prisoner who takes an instant dislike to Cervantes and then plays Don Quixote’s pompous nemesis in the play within the play. Leander Tanner does a fine comic turn as a barber who shows up at the inn where Don Quixote has taken up residence. Rick Kumpon is solid as the lead prisoner/bemused innkeeper who dubs Don Quixote “The Knight of the Woeful Countenance” in a fine vocal performance.
Credit should also go to the first-rate chorus of actors, led by Joe Hoffman, who play the rough muleteers staying at the inn. Their performance of “Little Bird, Little Bird” that starts as a sweet folk tune before transforming itself into a sneering taunt directed at Aldonza is a show highlight.
The lighting by Terry Burke, lighting coordinator, and Bonnie DeForest, lighting technician, heightens the mood throughout the show.
In my opinion, a key element that makes Man of La Mancha an emotional tour de force is its ambiguity. Don Quixote is either a fool, a hero or both. The world is both a pretty ugly place and a place that can be redeemed through hope and people rising to their best instincts.
As Life magazine critic Tom Prideaux wrote in 1965: “In making us love him and recognize parts of him in ourselves, this absurd but magnificent dreamer has revealed deep truths.”
That’s just as true today as it was 50 years ago. The Half Light production successfully brings the dream to life.
(One word of caution: The show contains a rape scene, but Half Light handles it with discretion. The action is implied rather than graphically shown.)
IF YOU GO: Man of La Mancha will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday (April 14-16) at the Phelps Mansion Museum ,191 Court St., Binghamton. Tickets are $18 in advance or $20 at the door. Purchase at www.imagination.bpt.me or by calling 201-5850.