By Michele Markarian
Man of La Mancha, by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion. Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman. Presented by New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown through December 31.
“Man of La Mancha” is based on the story of Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain’s – and the world’s – most eminent authors. Cervantes was imprisoned many times over the course of his lifetime, usually for financial reasons, and managed to survive five years in captivity by pirates during his early military career. Throughout his captivity, his love for literature kept him going, setting the stage for his creation, Don Quixote, the nobleman who wishes to restore chivalry by becoming a knight in a world that’s decidedly harsh. With the help of a recruit, poor dumb farmer Sancho Panza, who serves as his squire, and his courtly love towards the lowly born Aldonza (renamed Dulcinea), Don Quixote attempts to live out his reality in his world where chivalry thrives.
When the play opens, tax collector Cervantes (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and his secretary (Michael Levesque) have been brought to prison, for foreclosing on a monastery. Ocampo-Guzman sets the prison in the 1960s, during the reign of Franco and the rigidity of the Roman Catholic Church. The other prisoners are a mean lot, and threaten to destroy the belongings of Cervantes and his secretary. Cervantes demands a trial, and after revealing that the contents of his suitcases contain play scripts and costumes, creates his defense in the form of a play, using the prisoners as players. The prisoners also serve as musicians, a la the recent New York productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” I like the pared down musicians, as the strength of this production lies in its vocal talent, and it’s easier to hear the songs with less instrumentation.
Ocampo-Guzman, in tandem with Eric Levenson’s set design, presents us with an atmospheric, almost gritty production. Paul James Lang, as the Inquisitor, very creepy in a “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” kind of way, strides through the audience, along with hooded Inquisitors dressed in white (at least I perceived them to be of the Inquisition, which really wasn’t part of Franco’s reign. Hmmm). At any rate, they were a scary force, made scarier by the fact that when a hooded figure came up behind a prisoner, that prisoner would have to go with them to be tortured. I couldn’t tell from the program who was playing the Inquisitors, but the one singing behind me on the right side of the house had a voice that was eerily, remarkably, beautiful. Jeff Adelberg’s lighting design, which created a cavernous effect on the stage, augmented the mood nicely.
Vocal talent abounds in this show. Maurice Emmanuel Parent does a wonderful job with the show’s signature songs, “Man of La Mancha” and “The Impossible Dream”. Michael Levesque is sincere and appealing as Sancho Panza; he and Parent do a touching job with the friendship and loyalty between the two men. Levesque’s “I Like Him” is very funny. Ute Gfrerer’s impressive vocal range is served well, especially with her powerful rendering of “It’s All the Same”. Antonia (Ivy Ryan), Luisa (Christina English), Carrasco (Davron S. Monroe) and Father Perez (Stefan Barner) perform a quirky and catchy “I’m Only Thinking of Him”.
Dramatically, the piece was hard to latch onto, as the concept (s) struck me as a little ambitious, complicating a pretty simple plotline – a desperate man trying to save his life by telling a story, a story that would allow him to block out the harsher truths of life. But musically, you don’t want to miss this. The final moment, when the entire cast renders an a capella reprise of “The Impossible Dream” is stunning. For more info and tickets, go to: http://www.newrep.org/