An Exceptional Review of MAN OF LA MANCHA from Kristy Blackmon of The Column by John Garcia

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Plaza Theatre Company’s production of MAN OF LA MANCHA is in full swing. The show opened last weekend and will be playing through September 7th on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30pm and Saturday afternoons at 3pm. Read on for a spectacular recommendation of the show and then visit www.plaza-theatre.com or call 817-202-0600 to reserve.

_________________________MAN OF LA MANCHA_______________________

Reviewed by Kristy Blackmon, Associate Theater Critic
for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN

For all of the wonderful new shows, both musicals and plays, produced every
year, there will always be a special place for the old standards
from the glory days of mid-century American musical theatre. In the D/FW
metroplex, few companies rival Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne in this genre.
A mix of the company’s leadership, core group of both on and offstage talent,
the audience and theater space makes Plaza the land of milk and honey for those
musicals many of us know and love so well.

The one continual challenge for Plaza that I’ve seen is that their small
theater-in-the-round causes issues with staging and transitions.
I’ve written before about the blackouts necessitated by the quick and intricate
scene changes of complicated shows, and errors in judgment with the placement of
bulky set pieces that block the line of sight for significant portions of the
audience. In many cases, it’s just that the shows Plaza produces—these big, old
Broadway musicals in particular—have sets just as grand as their scores, and at
times they’re just too much for the small space.

All of these points taken together in consideration made Man of La Mancha,
currently running at Plaza through September 7, a near perfect show for this
theatre. Director G. Aaron Siler’s enthusiasm for the show was apparent from the
program’s Director’s Note and his opening speech to the audience. Man of La
Mancha is a different kind of musical, he advised those in the audience who were
unfamiliar with the show. Though this is very true, I don’t think the
qualification was necessary. Plaza’s production was enjoyable on 99% of all
fronts with or without an explanation.

Based on the canonical novel Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, Man of La Mancha
puts a twist on the themes presented by Cervantes in the book by telling the
story as a play within a play. Cervantes, along with his faithful servant, is
imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. In the squalid holding cell awaiting his
turn for questioning, he is forced to defend his possessions and his profession
against the other prisoners.

For his defense, he stages a re-enactment of his manuscript, which details the
story of one Alonso Quijana, a “crazy” old man who believes himself a
knight-errant by the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha, set forth on a quest for
justice, chivalry, truth, honor and faith.

The play-within-a-play was as the absolute perfect theatrical genre for Plaza’s
limited space. Siler never let the audience lose sight of the “play within a
play” concept. In past shows, the audience was lost every time there was a
blackout to change scenes. With Man of La Mancha, such transitions were
unnecessary; the settings of the real play never changes. We are always in the
Spanish prison watching Cervantes and his fellow inmates stage the show. For
their part, the inhabitants of the prison improvise set pieces, props, and in
many cases, costumes from anything that’s lying around which then becomes part
of the action in which the audience partakes. Thus, there are no blackouts and
any slips with most of the technical elements can be excused as part of the
clumsiness of the improvising inmates. This keeps the pace of the show hopping
quickly along, avoiding the pacing problems of some other Plaza shows I’ve seen.

The set, props and costumes were almost inextricably intertwined due to the
“homemade” nature of the production. A basket becomes a horse mask, a rag
becomes a silken scarf and two twirling broomsticks held perpendicular to each
other become the arms of a windmill. Again, the limited resources worked to the
advantage of the show, eliminating any need to break the spell. The set was
simple: a raised square platform in the middle of the stage surrounded by
barrels and boulders and a small recessed niche in one corner for highlighted
vignettes. Designed by Siler and JaceSon P. Barrus, the set was extremely
versatile, evocative and easy for the actors to maneuver into place.

Much of the staging was dependent not just on the set but also on the lighting.
This was the only part of the production that fell short. Siler, who designed
both the light and the sound, made heavy use of isolated spotlights for dramatic
effect and to highlight action he wished to be separate from the larger scene of
the prison.

Unfortunately, the actors failed to find their light the majority of the time,
leaving spots to fall on their noses and toes. At first I thought this was a
lack of experience on the part of some of the younger players since finding the
light is a lesson learned by the greenest actors. However, the problem spanned
the cast, from rookies to veterans, leaving me puzzled as to the reason or the
solution. The moments when the lighting technique worked were powerful;
unfortunately, those moments were too few and far between.

Like the set, the props by Tammie Phillips were flexible enough to be used for
multiple purposes when needed. Tina Barrus’ costume design was impeccable as
always. From prisoners to highborn ladies, priests to evil sorcerers, and nobles
to scholars, the costumes were spot on and beautiful. The costume and prop
designs needed to work hand in hand in Man of La Mancha, and it was difficult to
tell at times where Phillips’ design ended and Barrus’ began. The perfect
example of overlap between the two was the brilliant pair of horse heads worn by
two members of the prison ensemble and produced by Parker Barrus, which drew
laughter and a smattering of applause upon their first appearance.

Siler’s sound design was very effective, most notably in two ways. First, it was
perfectly evocative of action occurring offstage. During the first half of the
play, for instance, Don Quixote fights a group of giants, which are actually
windmills, offstage, and the sound effects painted a clear picture of the action
the audience couldn’t see. Second, and most important, the music never once
drowned out a performer despite the sometimes breathy vocals of some of the
players. Neither was it overwhelmed by the louder members of the cast. Many
don’t realize what a tricky mix this is to achieve, but Siler obviously
understood his technique. This was one of the first shows in a long while during
which I had no complaints about the sound.

Joel Lagrone gave a near perfect performance as both Miguel Cervantes,
the gentleman poet, and Don Quixote, the dotty old character played by
Cervantes, who wears a shaving basin on his head, carries a sword twisted into a
curlicue and totters around in a world of make-believe while still,
inexplicably, maintaining an unflagging air of dignity. Lagrone was a joy to
watch as he transformed back and forth from Cervantes to Quixote. Both of these
characters had their own forms of courage, wisdom and faith in humanity, and in
both roles Lagrone was a star. His Cervantes was refined without being dandified
and well-spoken without being snobbish, and his Don Quixote was remarkable;
suddenly, with the acquisition of some white in his beard and a battered armor
chest plate, Lagrone aged twenty years and became the perfect gentle, faithful
and noble old man to show us how beautiful the world can be if we just choose to
see the good in life. His rendition of “Impossible Dream” was tremendously
touching as an old, feeble madman becomes, in that moment, supremely noble and
emblematic of all the grace that man is capable of.

Shannon Loose’s portrayal of Aldonza, whom Don Quixote calls his lady Dulcinea,
was richly nuanced and ran the gamut of emotion. Aldonza’s anger and despair
over her miserable lot in life was palpable and her transformation from a
hardened, prickly cynic to a woman moved to trust in the “impossible dream” was
in turns brilliantly comical, utterly heartbreaking and, ultimately, inspiring.
Loose’s raspy, gritty speaking voice morphed into a cool, clear soprano that was
surprising and very successful. The contrast served to highlight her
vulnerability in songs such as “What Does He Want from Me” and her “Impossible
Dream” reprise. During less gentle songs, like the raunchy “It’s All the Same”,
it was less effective; the transitions were a little rough and inconsistent.

However, all is forgiven during Aldonza’s dramatic turning point mid-way through
the show when her faith in Don Quixote, her fellow man and herself is questioned
violently.Loose’s performance is devastating as she pours all of Aldonza’s self-loathing,

hopelessness and rage into the angry confessional “Aldonza”. By the show’s close,
 however, just as Alonso Quijana has transformed himself into Don Quixote, so has

Aldonza transformed herself into his lady, the noble, pure and faithful Dulcinea.

If Lagrone is the ultimate example of a seasoned performer well-acquainted with
his craft, and Loose is a musical actress at her peak, Michael McMillian as
Sancho Panza is a young talent with a wealth of potential. Sweet and earnest,
with a knack for comedic timing and the rare ability to stay interesting while
not detracting when he isn’t the center of the action, McMillian is a future
powerhouse. His vocals were perfect, his energy unfaltering and his depiction of
Panza was downright heartwarming. When Dulcinea asks why he’s following this
doddering old man around as he pursues visions of lunacy, Panza answers with the
genuine (and slightly bemused) solo “I Like Him” (listed in the Plaza program as
“The Missive”). McMillian pulled off Panza’s sincere loyalty, easygoing nature
and slight air of naiveté with ease. His physical comedy never missed and he
consistently held his own while never seeming to compete with Lagrone; showing
not just maturity but also wisdom as any attempt to upstage the leading man
playing either Cervantes or Quixote would surely have been cringe-worthy.

Every single cast member, in fact, was impressive: versatile, energetic, engaged
and capable of making the audience laugh and their eyes mist over. Man of La
Mancha is a brilliant show, but like many brilliant pieces of theatre, it falls
flat without a director and cast who understand its layers of meaning and how
best to convey them. Unlike other musicals where a grand score, intricate dance
numbers or extravagant sets and costumes carry the show, the cast of this
musical is what makes or breaks it.

Martin Guerra as Padre, the conflicted village priest from Alonso Quijana’s
home, did a fantastic job showcasing his character’s internal battle between
believing what society tells him is “sane” and his inability to see any harm in
Alonso Quijana’s fantasies. His gentle rendition of “To Each His Dulcinea” was a
calm and contemplative moment that gave the show a nice rest between adventures.

Luke Hunt was wonderfully pompous as Dr. Carasco, Alonso Quijana’s scholarly and
snobbish soon-to-be nephew, who devises a cruel scheme to rid the old man of his
delusions. He is the character the audience loves to hate.

His intended bride, Antonia, is played by Emily Warwick, a young woman with a
beautiful voice and the ability to switch between sniffling noblewoman and
guffawing low-born prisoner with ease. Doug Henrie, as both the “Governor” of
the prison and the Innkeeper in the play, showed a softness of heart covered by
varying degrees of bluster, and the group of men who make up the Muleteers who
frequent his establishment (both the prison and the inn) ranged from amusingly
ribald to frighteningly vicious.

The beauty of Man of La Mancha is that it encourages us to hope and to believe
in nobility and justice. In an age where the normal mode of human interaction is
cynical and full of suspicion, where it seems as though everyone from
politicians to strangers on the Internet are determined to make us lose our
faith in the innate goodness of people, we need our Don Quixotes. We need our
quests and impossible dreams. Plaza’s production of this show reemphasized the
timelessness of a story that remains as relevant today as it was in the
sixteenth century.

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