Theater: 'Man of La Mancha'
Let's presume, for a moment, that Francis Daley brought "Man of La Mancha" to TheatreWorks New Milford because he had the innate sense that we all needed reassurance that at this point in time, it is mandatory "to dream the impossible dream." If you add to that presumption that Daley actually "pitched" the idea of Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh's timeless musical as the final offering of the 2018 season over a year ago, then the audience owes him a special round of applause.
"Man of La Mancha" is not an easy piece to produce, to act and sing in, to choreograph or to absorb from the fifth or sixth row, wherever your seats might be. It's a play within a play that slips in and out of time.
Set in a 16th century Spanish prison, the underlying play pits a fictionalized Don Miguel de Cervantes and his servant Sancho Panza against the thugs, murderers and thieves being held awaiting trial. Cervantes is to appear before the tribunal that was lightly referred to as the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly foreclosing on a monastery for unpaid taxes.
Attempting to salvage his personal possessions including the manuscript for his book from the thugs, Cervantes decides to put on a play, engaging his fellow prisoners as actors. And, so the story goes from there.
There is singing — notably "The Impossible Dream," which has become an emotional staple ever since the play premiered in 1965 at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. There is slapstick comedy, there is clever dialogue and there is a beautiful slow-motion fight scene choreographed by Adam Battelstein, originally from Pilobolus, Momix and, since 2009, creative force behind Catapult Entertainment.
Songs get applause. Curtain calls get applause. In this presentation of "Man of La Mancha," the choreography of the fight scene in act two got a rousing round of appreciative, well-deserved applause.
The presentation fills the stage at TheatreWorks New Milford backed by a set replete with a drop-down staircase that separates the world of incarceration and despair from the potential for freedom. The environment is cleverly designed and executed by Leif Smith and Kate Moncuse.
And, the acting company. We opened with the caveat that "Man of La Mancha" is not an easy play. For some of the characters, especially those who have songs that personalize the narrative, the difficulty of the score is a challenge. Frederick Rueck deserves more than a nod for his lusty portrayal of Cervantes/Don Quixote. The history of the role is intense. Across Broadway runs, road companies and revivals, the list of stars is impressive — Richard Kiley, Raul Julia, Jose Ferrer, Hal Linden, Robert Goulet, John Cullum, Lloyd Bridges and, in a recorded version, Placido Domingo.
Rueck holds his own, seamlessly adjusting his character portrayal from the clever Cervantes to the pitiable Don Quixote, singing, fighting, holding the piece together. As his stalwart servant and companion, Sancho, John Lino Ponzini brings great comic timing mixed with genuine pathos to the role.
Elizabeth Brito brings strength and energy to the role of Aldonza, the bar maid and tramp whom Quixote idolizes into "Dulcinea," thereby changing her life.
Are the stars unreachable? Is the dream impossible? Perhaps … but with the help of TheatreWorks New Milford, there is still the chance to dream.