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Theater review: 'Man of La Mancha' at the Carpenter Arts Center

February 14, 2012 |  3:13 pm

"Man of La Mancha"
The melding of darkness and bravura in "Man of La Mancha" at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center isn't revolutionary, but it's certainly resonant. Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's beloved Tony winner about the author of "Don Quixote" receives an engrossing Musical Theatre West revival, with director Nick DeGruccio's able cast spearheaded by the incandescent Davis Gaines and Lesli Margherita.

Popular opinion mistakes "La Mancha" for a musical about Don Quixote, but Wasserman's libretto explores how idealism survives totalitarian oppression, personified in hero Miguel de Cervantes (Gaines). Set in a grim Seville prison during the Spanish Inquisition -- strikingly designed by Kevin Clowes -- the concept deposits Cervantes and his manservant (Justin Robertson) into a den of lowlifes while awaiting trial.

The kangaroo court that ensues nearly ends "La Mancha" before it starts, with Cervantes' manuscript about an addled knight-errant almost burned by his fellow inmates. Until Cervantes proposes that he enact his "defense" by dramatizing his literary creation, pulling the prisoners into his charade. As musical director Matthew Smedal's orchestra begins the title number's driving vamp, Gaines slaps on old-age makeup, joins Robertson atop the revolving center turntable behind two horse-masked dancers, and onward to glory we go.

Years since his record-breaking turn as the Phantom of the Opera, Gaines' vocal instrument remains in thrilling estate, and his handling of the dramatic content is remarkable, particularly the eye-moistening monologue preceding his galvanic "Impossible Dream."

Margherita, who grows exponentially with each role, brings an affecting mix of earthy and neoclassical to the trollop he reveres. From her wistful halftones at "What Does He Want of Me?" to an "Aldonza" so savage that you fear for her larynx, this is an inspired performance by a formidable artist.

If Robertson doesn't quite reach their level, his affable Sancho Panza is serviceably correct, and the ensemble inhabits their various characters with panache. Richard Gould gives the cell block Governor great presence, while Steven Glaudini imbues the Barber with typical wit. Karenssa LeGear's fluting Antonia, Dynell Leigh's wry Housekeeper, Jason Webb's pure-toned Padre and the redoubtable Damon Kirsche's Dr. Carrasco make "I'm Only Thinking of Him" a standout.

There are distractions in DeGruccio's take, notably an action-stopping elevator in place of the traditional drawbridge, and choreographer Carlos Mendoza's approach to Aldonza's abduction is unnecessarily graphic. Yet the net effect, aided by Steven Young's invaluable lighting and Cathleen Edwards' Goya-esque costumes, coordinated by Todd Proto, is gripping. So subjective, deeply personal a reading will have its detractors, but it left this reviewer invigorated, with both eyes trained toward the unreachable stars.

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"Man of La Mancha," Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; also, 7 p.m. Feb. 19 only. Ends Feb.26. $20-$85. (562) 856-1999 Ext. 4 or www.musical.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: Davis Gaines, left, and Lesli Margherita. Credit: Ken Jacques.

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