I couldn’t wait to see Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha. With my schedule so full, I was allowed to see the preview, the night before the official opening. I admit to being spoiled. I had seen so many great men perform the title role. The most memorable was Robert Goulet, who sang The Impossible Dream and brought tears not only to the eyes of some of the women in the audience, but to some of the men as well. So many casts even at the community theater level have rendered this musical mammoth. That Mark Lamos was directing added to my excitement. After all, I have been a Lamos fan from his tenure as artistic director at Hartford Stage. Since Man of La Mancha is a giant of a musical and since Lamos is a giant of a director, my expectations were very high. Perhaps that was the problem. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a very good production. It’s just not great.
Dungeon dark with splashes of blood red lighting and an ominous staircase reaching from ceiling to floor set the scene perfectly. The set designed by Wilson Chin was spot on and Alan C. Edwards’ lighting design accented the appropriate dismal mood for the Inquisition. As the deep black staircase descended to the stage accompanied by Domonic Sack’s fearful sound design, the play within a play was ready for action.
Philip Hernandez entered the dungeon, and he really looks like Cervantes’ Don Quixote. And he has a solid, strong voice. Gisela Adisa as Aldonza (Dulcinea) also looks right for her part. As a matter of fact, the entire cast including Tony Manna as Sancho looks picture perfect. And they all performed well. Why then, did I not feel elated? I sat up straighter in my seat looking for an explanation.
As Dale Wasserman’s magnificent play progressed with Mitch Leigh’s music and Joe Darion’s lyrics, I became concerned. “Is it possible that the actors just don’t have the adrenaline rush that often comes on opening night?” I wondered. Both the cast and the audience belied that thought. The audience cheered for the solos and finally gave the cast a standing ovation. As for me, I felt that something was missing. It was only on my drive home that I said out loud and without any prelude, “It’s flat. It’s not big enough.”
The production was smaller than most with fewer cast members and a lot less orchestra. Musicals, especially big ones, need music. Andrew David Sotomayor is an excellent music director, but he is working here with less. I understand that Lamos probably streamlined the production to create a greater sense of intimacy (and to also make the production more affordable), but I wanted the big orchestra numbers, the big dance numbers, and I didn’t like the way the first syllable of Dulcinea’s name was continually over-exaggerated as “due- lcinea.”
Mind you, I’m not a purist. I’ve seen My Fair Lady done as a concert production and loved it. I’ve seen many shows downsized and streamlined, but skimming Quixote seems like an oxymoron. This is the story of man who refused to be compromised. First, he is imprisoned and then to amuse the other prisoners who want to put him on trial, he creates a play. He plays an idealist — Quixote. Both as prisoner and actor he is on a quest for righteousness and good in the world. His Impossible Dream is glorious. At one point an actual giant size foe confronts Quixote. The giant is a silvery mirror-infused monster. Quixote with his determination and courage manages to cut it down. While the protagonist plays a role with fellow prisoners waiting for their turns with the inquisitors, he brings hope to the motley inmates.
The thing is that Westport’s production is good, but Cervantes’ sweeping masterpiece demands all the bells and whistles and all the fanfare. Anything less amounts to disappointment. This show plays through Oct. 13. Box office: 203-227-4177.
Joanne Greco Rochman is a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]