Monday, July 14, 2008

Keegan’s ‘Man of La Mancha’ Worth a Revisit

Richard Morrison and I saw Keegan Theatre's new production of Man of La Mancha last Saturday night. It turned out there was a former UVA student in the cast, whom we knew peripherally. (We didn't stick around to give the cast accolades after the show, however; there was a long drive ahead.)

My review, prepared for The Metro Herald in Alexandria, appears below.

Keegan’s ‘Man of La Mancha’ Worth a Revisit
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Run, don’t walk, to Church Street near Dupont Circle to see Mark A. Rhea’s masterful staging of Man of La Mancha. Don’t even hesitate, because tickets to this outstanding production are sure to sell out fast.

Man of La Mancha – which was inspired by the life and writings of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote – is perhaps unique among highly successful Broadway musicals. Not only did its creative team – librettist Dale Wasserman, composer Mitch Leigh, and lyricist Joe Darion – never have another hit together, but none of them individually achieved a similar success on Broadway, alone or in collaboration with others.

In fact, if you added up all the Broadway performances of all the other shows Wasserman, Leigh, and Darion had a hand in, they would not reach even a third of the original run of Man of La Mancha (2,328 performances from November 1965 through June 1971). Such is the magic of the musical theatre, which often relies on kismet. (One has to wonder whether the show would have enjoyed such amazing success had the original lyricist, poet W.H. Auden, stuck with the project.)

Now in its 10th season, with a repertoire that largely but not entirely focuses on Irish drama, the Keegan Theatre is reprising one of the successful shows from early in its existence. Some of the cast members are the same, but even those who are new exhibit a depth of understanding of their characters.

For those unfamiliar with this much-revived musical (including four revivals on Broadway, the most recent in 2003 featuring Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Ernie Sabella, played briefly at Washington’s Warner Theatre), it is something of a play within a play.

Cervantes (played by David Jourdan) arrives in prison at the invitation of the Inquisition. In order to delay the taking of his belongings by his fellow prisoners – cutthroats, thieves, murderers, and others – he suggests that he put on an entertainment. If his storytelling pleases the “jury” of his prisoner-peers, he gets to keep his things (and, presumably, his life, too). He proceeds to lay out the tale of Alonso Quijana, an old man who believes himself to be a noble knight known as “Don Quixote de La Mancha.” The other prisoners, as necessary, take on the other roles in the play.

In one of his most brilliant strokes, Rhea directs his supporting cast – the other prisoners, who mostly populate the periphery of the compact performance space – to start off being indifferent to Cervantes’ antics. They face away from the action, twiddle their thumbs, feign sleep, avoid engagement.

As the play continues, however, the ensemble becomes more and more – gradually, eventually – absorbed and engaged in what is unfolding center stage. By the end, they are totally consumed and inspired by Cervantes’ story and his dignified response to the indignities he faces.

Rhea and his production team must have worked tirelessly to put all the pieces together. A floor grate, for example, becomes a confessional booth; a handy design, but not an obvious choice. Lighting (designed by Dan Martin), costume (Kelly Peacock), set (George Lucas) and sound (Tony Angelini) design – all come together in a cohesive whole.

At the same time, despite its excellence, the production retains the sense that Cervantes and his companion are improvising. They need to buy time (which is in abundance in the prison) and, to do so, they entertain.

All of the principals and even the supporting players are impressive in their roles.

Michael Innocenti has pitch-perfect intonation and comic timing in the tenor role of Sancho. Innocenti can do as much with a roll of his eyes as with his voice.

As Aldonza, Carolyn Agan is expressive and – as Don Quixote proclaims – beautiful underneath her scullery-maid exterior. The song “Aldonza” is one of the best character songs in the musical theatre repertoire, and Agan delivers it with exactly the right mix of cynicism, frustration, and sadness.

Harv Lester as Padre, Jane Petkofsky as the Housekeeper, and Carolyn Myers as Antonia all deserve special recognition. Each of them gets a backstory as a prisoner that plays out in their “character” roles in the Don Quixote sequences.

Kevin Adams, who plays the “Governor” (head prisoner) and the Innkeeper, stays straight for most of the performance, but he has impish (appropriately so) fun with the song “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” which is too often performed with mock seriousness. Nice touch.

Jourdan (as Cervantes) is at his best when reciting, rather than singing, his lines. Perhaps it was a bad night for him, but he seemed at times to be struggling to hit his notes. Still, this detracted little from his overall performance, which was otherwise spot on.

Last summer, Keegan’s musical offering was 1776, which was wonderfully done with the shortcoming of the absence of live musical accompaniment. (The actors sang to pre-recorded music.) Not so this summer: In Man of La Mancha, a full musical ensemble under the direction of Amy Conley offers strong and dramatic support to the cast on stage. With this, Keegan’s Man of La Mancha is a truly integrated musical play.

Having mentioned George Lucas’ set design already, it should be noted that the intimate performance space at Church Street Theater is true to the origins of Man of La Mancha, which was originally produced on a small thrust stage at a (now defunct) theatre known as ANTA Washington Square. (It later graduated to a series of larger Broadway houses.)

One mistake many producers of Man of La Mancha make is to ignore the fundamental intimacy of the play. (The 2003 Broadway revival was far too fancy and big, for example; the Martin Beck Theatre [now the Al Hirschfeld] where it played seats nearly 1,500 people.) This play, after all, is set in a dungeon, with all of the dankness and darkness that word connotes. Directors also forget that Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana is a weak old man, so to have him belt “The Impossible Dream” like Robert Goulet in a Las Vegas show room is disjointed, to say the least.

Mark Rhea and the Keegan company avoid these errors and make virtue out of necessity. Though the temptation might be strong to “move up” to a larger house, especially with popular productions like Man of La Mancha, they are wise to stay put in the delightful Church Street space, where there is not – cannot be – a bad seat in the audience.

Keegan’s Man of La Mancha deserves to be seen. It is inspiring, touching (bring an extra handkerchief), and bold in its execution. Catch a performance before it’s gone.

Keegan Theatre’s production of Man of La Mancha runs through August 17 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street, N.W., in Washington near Dupont Circle. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8:00 o’clock, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $30 to $35, with discounts for groups of 10 or more. For ticket information, call the Keegan Theatre box office at 703-892-0202 (ext. 2) or send an email to The Keegan Theatre web site can be found at

Blogger is being fussy, so I will be posting production photos later.

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