Review: Westport Playhouse Revives ‘Man of La Mancha’

From left, Tony Manna as Sancho Panza, Philip Hernandez as Don Quixote, and Gisela Adisa as Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha."

On that very short list of musicals that I really don’t ever need to see again, “Man of La Mancha,” the much-loved 1965 Broadway hit about the perils of Don Quixote, would fall somewhere after “Menopause, the Musical” and just before “Mamma Mia!”, “Cats” and “Les Miserables.” That acknowledged, however, I can readily recommend the current revival of Mitch Leigh and Dale Wasserman’s dated warhorse currently in revival at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Based on Miguel de Cervantes’ “The Adventures of Don Quixote,” writer Dale Wasserman with Mitch Leigh (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics) transferred the story to a musical format making Cervantes a character who finds he is facing the Spanish Inquisition. While imprisoned he takes part in a mock trial in which he needs to defend his life to his fellow inmates or risk losing all his possessions. Cervantes then becomes Quixote in this play within a play and enlists the other prisoners to take part. The musical, with its heart cemented firmly on its sleeve and its naïve and heavy-handed look at a complicated world, appealed to 1960s audiences who bought willingly into its unbridled optimism and high sentimentality. This is the “Impossible Dream” musical, remember, and there are few who still can’t help but tear up when that stirring anthem is sung in full voice.

At Westport, under the busy direction of Mark Lamos, “Man of La Mancha” will not disappoint its fervent followers. The musical is very well sung throughout by a strong ensemble and, in particular, by its two major leads. Philip Hernandez more than delivers as a stalwart, manly Cervantes and Gisela Adisa is equally good as Aldonza, the object of his affection. Adisa is a fierce force of nature as the fallen woman whose earthy rawness belies a tender vulnerability. Hernandez is everything a leading man in this particular musical should be and he takes the familiar “Impossible Dream” ballad and makes it his own special triumph. As Cervantes’ jovial sidekick, Sancho Panza, Tony Manna gives a “pleased-as-punch-with-myself” performance that is nonetheless redeemed by his melodious singing voice.

Mr. Lamos keeps very active stage pictures throughout the proceedings almost to the point of distraction. The trio of actors singing “I’m Only Thinking of Him” (Carlos Encinias, Paola Hernandez and Lulu Picart) tend to get upstaged by their physical manifestation of the song and the major confrontation at the musical’s climax is so hectic and dimly lit (by Alan C. Edwards), I’m not sure if it’s ever really clear what exactly is going on. Still, scenic designer Wilson Chin has provided an all-too-real and gritty prison setting that becomes something quite special at the curtain call. In addition, Andrew David Sotomayor’s orchestra sounds great cleverly utilizing the Playhouse’s upper boxes on each side of the stage.

All considered it’s probably safe to say that if you find it difficult to resist choking up over yet another chorus of “The Impossible Dream,” you’ll probably not be able to resist this polished and professional Playhouse offering.

“Man of La Mancha” continues at the Westport Playhouse through Oct. 14. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.