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Review: 'Man of La Mancha,' Reprise at the Freud Playhouse

February 16, 2009 | 12:45 pm


Mention “Man of La Mancha” to anyone and chances are he or she will start booming out “The Impossible Dream” -- verse after relentless verse. This breakaway hit, which was trotted out by nearly every baritone who could get himself booked on a variety show in the ’70s, has more or less eclipsed the classic 1965 musical from which it was spawned.

The song, however, is best appreciated in its dramatic context. And the great thing about Reprise Theatre Company’s production, which opened Sunday at the Freud Playhouse, is the loving way it attends to the story and its defense of imagination and unrealizable dreams. When you have literary source material this good — and Dale Wasserman’s book does a commendable job of framing and condensing Cervantes' epic novel “Don Quixote” — there’s really no reason to waste it.

Directed by Michael Michetti, who last season staged Reprise’s critically acclaimed production of “Li’l Abner,” this revival of “Man of La Mancha” is so attractively arrayed that before offering up a few words of praise for the central performances of Brent Spiner, Julia Migenes and Lee Wilkof, let me pay homage to the sensational design team.

Tom Buderwitz’s set, which provides just enough sense of the metallic dungeon Cervantes finds himself in, well situates us for the ensuing narrative journey of that comically beloved knight-errant who’s forever tilting at windmills. Swift and inventive, the impressionistic physical environment lays the groundwork for Lap-Chi Chu’s hypnotic lighting, Garry Lennon’s effective costumes and Philip G. Allen’s thrilling sound effects.

The temptation with big-name musicals is to overproduce them. And “La Mancha's” storied history, with its multiple Tonys and its original Broadway run of 2,328 performances, can make it easy to forget that the work opened in the ANTA Washington Square Theatre in Greenwich Village, a space that afforded the kind of intimacy the show depends on.

To put it another way, “La Mancha” supersized is “La Mancha” traduced. Recognizing this, Michetti doesn’t engage in spectacle for spectacle's sake but rather treats the work for what it is — a music drama built on a romantic theme that’s more autumnal than glitzy. Every guitar strum and orchestra blast, as well as every move in Kitty McNamee’s subtle choreography, lends a storytelling hand.

Spiner plays the split role of Cervantes, the struggling Spanish author and tax collector who’s thrown in jail for a trumped-up offense against the church, and his character Don Quixote, which is the alias Alonso Quijana adopts to transform his mundane life into something heroic. At first I questioned whether Spiner had sufficient magnetism for this undertaking. Having only heard Richard Kiley in the original cast recording, I couldn't help expecting Don Quixote to resemble either Raul Julia or Brian Stokes Mitchell, the musical’s last two handsome Broadway headliners.

Dulcinea_2 As it turns out, Spiner does indeed have the necessary charisma, though it’s not of the heartthrob variety, which in any case isn’t what’s needed. With his somber eyes and professorial scruffiness, he is perfectly suited to inhabit the hard-up reality of this writer whose freedom has been unjustly taken and who wants above all to protect the  manuscript of his magnum opus.

To win over his fellow prisoners (a merciless lot), Cervantes decides to enact the story with their assistance. If he can convince a jury of his jailed peers that the inspiring lesson of Don Quixote is worth preserving, perhaps he’ll stand a chance of persuading the authorities controlling his fate.

Migenes, an opera singer renowned for her sizzling Carmen, portrays Aldonza, the low-born serving woman and sassy trollop whom Don Quixote tricks himself into believing is Lady Dulcinea, the woman of his dreams. (Valerie Perri performs this role in matinees.) Don’t expect diva turns from Migenes, who seems more invested in her acting than in her singing here. Scampering around like a hissing alley cat with a vivid shock of tight red curls and a withering ironic laugh, she takes her part in this tragicomic parable of redemption — a crucial presence, though never a domineering one.

As Cervantes’ manservant and Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza, Wilkof brings his usual comic sharpness. Accompanying his master on his numerous fool’s errands, this most famous second banana in all of literature is shown to be operating more out of affectionate loyalty than the mockery he occasionally indulges in.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong, and Maegan McConnell is in especially lovely voice as Antonia, who wishes her uncle would quit his humiliating Don Quixote delusion. She exquisitely leads off the number “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” a light parody of self-interest posing as selfless concern that brightly shows off the collaborative harmony between Mitch Leigh’s music and Joe Darion’s lyrics.

The production, which runs close to an intermission-less two hours, has a few choppy moments as the Quixote drama gets into gear. The action shouldn’t be slowed, but the ensemble hasn't yet found its footing in early transitions.

Let’s not quibble, however, about Michetti’s otherwise fluid staging, which rescues “Man of La Mancha” from its dinner theater doldrums. Believe it or not, even “The Impossible Dream” sounds unsentimentally fresh this time around.

--Charles McNulty

"Man of La Mancha," Reprise Theatre Company, Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through March 1; tickets: $70-$75,
(310) 825-2101. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Top photo: Brent Spiner, right, and Lee Wilkof in "Man of La Mancha." Bottom photo: Julia Migenes. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times.

Comments () | Archives (6)

This production is fantastic, a truly magical night of theatre in Los Angeles. The audience was fully enthralled from beginning to end, and we lept to our feet at the end in spontaneous applause. Do not miss this show.

I saw this production on the same night and could not disagree more with this review. The direction is horrible. It felt like a good high school musical at best and I expect more from Reprise and these seasoned performers. This production lacked passion and energy, most specifically from the actress playing Aldonza. She could not sing the music in their rightful keys and did not take the character of Aldonza on any kind of a journey. I did not care about Aldonza and never saw her grow through out the piece. I blame this partially on the director, however. It is his job to guide the actors and help them to fully realize a character. MOST disappointing was the number "Aldonza". The character has just been raped and beaten and Ms. Migenes stood there and simply sang the song. There was no pain in her voice nor in her physicality; There was nothing behind it AT ALL. It was awful. She was static through the entire piece as was Mr. Spiner who played Don Quixote. He lacked the vocal ability, as well, that the actor playing Don Quixote/Cervantes should posess. "The Impossible Dream" was most underwhelming. All of the actors are clearly talented but their director did them a great disservice. And if this is what "good" L.A. theatre apparently is then the theatre companies in this town are doing their audiences a GREAT disservice. On a positive note, Mr. Wilkof was wonderful as Sancho and the ensemble brings a good energy to the stage of an otherwise passionless production of this amazing show. If you have never seen "Man of La Mancha" please do not let Reprise's production be your first experience with it.

Julie who commented on Feb 17 at 3:22 PM must have been inside my head. I couldn't agree more. I don't know if she realizes that Miss Migenes IS in the correct key for her opening number, "One Pair Of Arms", however she sings the latter part of the song an octave below the original....Sophia Loren does the same in the film...but hey, it's a film and she's a movie star. I expected to be knocked out by Migenes who has a killer soprano but apparently didn't want to use the requisite high chest notes for the octave jump in her opening number. As for Spiner, if you want to see passion and hear the score, Google the 57th Annual Tony awards and hear Brian Stokes Mitchell deliver on every note catch every nuance of every lyric. Also, I suggest the powers at Reprise BEG Jerry Sternbach to return as musical director. The tempos were slow enough to extend the show by 20 minutes. The ensemble appeared to be sitting around waiting to be called for a lunch break rather than living in fear of being called to their death. Spiner was without charisma, true vocal power or understanding of the depth of this man. Migenes played the entire night on one boring acting note. Where was the sensuality and passion of this spitfire whore who changes into a "lady" after her time with Cervantes. The Padre was a chorus boy with a nice voice....a bore. Wilkoff was okay considering he had to play off Spiner. I'd have preferred to see the understudy (Dr.Corasco) in the lead and I wonder if Valarie Perri (Migenes understudy) has been allowed to develop her own Aldonza or is consigned to mimic Migenes. I'd prefer to hear Migenes in concert. If you've never seen La Mancha before this production, you STILL haven't seen it.

I second the comment above about noticing the absence of Jerry Sternback from this awful Reprise season. His musical direction is sorely missed. The Reprise shows always used to have a sparkle under his (and before him, Peter Matz) musical direction. The recent shows lack this. I am really fed up with Reprise. Very disappointed in the current season and most of last year's.

I just saw it tonight and I agree wholeheartedly with the LA Times review.
I saw the original production back in its Greenwich Village days, when I was a teen-age boy. I was enthralled. Tonight, I was nearly as carried away as I was then.
The entire cast is top notch, including Migenes. She gave a nuanced, soulful performance that I found absolutely convincing. No, it wasn't the original cast, but can we note for a few seconds that Reprise puts these shows together in a couple of weeks to run for a couple of weeks? I've been a subscriber for four or five years now, and this is probably the best production it's mounted in all that time.
Go ahead and whine about it if you need to get that out of your system. The audience tonight was thrilled. This is what you hope will happen in a company that brings back great musical theater.

We enjoyed the Reprise production -- and I actually saw the original cast at ANTA in the 1960's - so that's saying a lot. (The original was stunning.) I was, however, somewhat mystified at Julia Maginnes' approach to her role.. talk-singing rather than full out singing the early numbers. I found it oddly off-putting... and unnecessary, especially from a gifted singer. (It's not like she's Rex Harrison faking his way through My Fair Lady!) After all -- this IS a musical! I just listened to her in the Placido Dominguez concert version and she was stunning there, which makes her choice to talk through "Why does he do the things he do..." that much odder.


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