Saturday, May 23, 2009

Take a trip to 'La Mancha' with Arts in Motion

“Man of La Mancha” is a lighthearted comedic musical romp that isn’t afraid to go to dark corners and raise philosophical questions about facing reality and the necessary need for escapism.

Arts in Motion opened its energetic production of “Man of La Mancha” at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse Friday, May 22. Director Susie Mosca has mounted a handsomely produced production with a lively cast and an effective period set designed by Roger Clemons.

Based on Miguel de Cervantes’s classic 17th century novel “Don Quixote,” “Man of La Mancha” first appeared on Broadway in 1965. The show is self-reflexive with a fictionalized version of Cervantes (Craig Holden) being thrown into a prison to await trial by the Inquisition.

Cervantes’ fellow prisoners have their own trial for him and accuse him of being an idealist. To defend his case he acts out the story of Don Quixote, a simple man who has read so many tales of chivalry that he has driven himself mad and created a fantasy world in which he is a knight. Cervantes asks those around them to fill parts as needed.

This play-within-a-play conceit is a clever device that allows for book writer Dale Wasserman and lyricist Joe Darion to comment on theater and performance. We get to see Cervantes transform himself into Don Quixote with a fake beard, a bit of glue and some make up. It is also factors into the musical’s theme of fantasy versus reality and whether bursting Don Quixote’s bubble is what is truly best for him.

“Don Quixote” was originally written as a satire of chivalrous adventure stories. Written in two parts, the first was farce, but the second was more serious and bleak with Quixote seen as a madman who was cruelly ridiculed.

“Man of La Mancha” explores these two sides of Cervantes’ work, but while Quixote is still seen as a madman, his idealized view of the world is openly embraced. The message seems to be that in a world that is cruel and unfair, no one’s dream, however absurd, should be squashed.

All this makes the show sound very somber and while there are certainly darker moments, including a rape that happens off stage, there is also plenty of sly humor that is well played by the cast.

Holden is effective in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote. As Quixote he gets the tone just right of a man happily living in a delusion. He shines brightest on the show’s most famous song “The Impossible Dream,” which is sung with great conviction.

Holden makes Quixote’s passion infectious, and when his loyal “squire” Sancho Panza (Frank Smith) sings “I Really Like Him” it is easy to see why. Smith has nice comic timing as Sancho, who puts up with the wild antics, while at the same time enjoying the absurdity of it all.

Anna Mosca, as a barmaid who Quixote believes is his lady Dulcinea, is a great foil to both Holden and Smith. She brings a forceful snarky energy to the character, especially on the song “It Is All the Same” in which she fends off several men on the prowl.

Other highlights in the large cast include Gino Funicella in the duel role of governor and the innkeeper, and Rob Owen as a barber. Both actors play their role for broad laughs and get them.

If the production has a shortcoming it is that at times it is unclear where the drama and comedy line is. There is nothing wrong with show walking the ambiguous line of humor and pathos, but some scenes that seem to be intended be dramatic are unintentionally comic or perhaps it is the other way around. These moments are few and don’t undermine the show’s overall quality.

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