MAGNA — I think there are three great American musicals. They are, in no particular order: The Music Man, 1776 and Man of La Mancha. The last one may surprise you. A musical set in 16th century Spain based on perhaps the greatest novel of the Spanish language, using musical styles of Spain and written by a bunch of Americans. Dale Wasserman wrote the book of the musical, basing it on his TV play I, Don Quixote. Music was written by Mitch Leigh with lyrics by Joe Darien. I have loved this musical since I first saw it. So I was very excited to see the production of Man of La Mancha at the Empress Theatre. And I was not disappointed. This is a production that any fan of La Mancha would be happy to see, and is a great introduction for anyone new to the musical.
The story of Don Quixote of La Mancha and the effect of this “Mad Knight” on the inhabitants of the prison is a wonderful story of the value of idealism and how perhaps madness is seeing things as they are rather than how they should be. Excellent performances are provided by Shawnee K Johnson as Aldonza/Dulcinea, Eric Barney as Sancho Panza, and Curtis Nash as Prisoner/Muleteer/Barber. Ms. Johnson has a powerful singing voice and was wonderful in singing “Aldonza” in the second act. Mr. Barney provided both the comic relief and surprising heart in his portrayal of Sancho, the servant of Don Quixote. His songs “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip” were highlights of the show because of his acting chops. In fact, his facial expressions made the songs as much as his singing voice. Mr. Nash was incredible to watch in the various roles he covered. His performance was always compelling and he truly committed to each role. Shawn Maxfield as Cervantes/Quixote must also be singled out. This is a very complicated role, and he did a fine job, although I wish he had more vocal power. His voice is very good, but lacked some of the power I would have liked to see in the upper range.
Commitment is an interesting thing. It is what I think separates good performances from truly inspiring ones. Sadly, it was lacking from the first part of this show for many in the cast. And this may have been due to being so close to opening and the show not having found its groove yet. To their credit, it was there by the end, but it seemed that the actors needed to warm up to it. Director Glen Carpenter has created a believable world in which to unfold this play. But some staging choices seemed to miss the mark for me and kept this from being a truly great performance. The most telling for me (and this is a purely personal choice) I would have liked to see Quixote stand stock still and deliver “The Impossible Dream” facing straight out. It is one of the most truly powerful songs in the musical theater repertoire, and that power is somewhat diluted, in my opinion, when Quixote is shifting his focus. In contrast, and seeming contradiction to what I just said, some of the movement seemed too small. For instance, during the song “It’s All the Same” when the muleteers are trying to get Aldonza to go with them, they are just seated at the table, and she just walks around them, not really interacting with them that much. The Empress Theater is a smaller venue, and with audience on three sides of the stage, you don’t want to overwhelm them, but I felt more could be done to make the staging more visually interesting. The only other minor distraction was the lighting. There are few lights in the theater and many of the scenes you lose the actors’ faces in shadow. I have to point out that these were minor distractions for me and did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the show. This is a terrific production from a community theater with some major talent. And I must admit, I was moved and crying at the end and this company deserved their standing ovation.
The stage setting was wonderful, and was executed by Timothy Swenson, Butch Young, Shawn Maxfield, Jeremy Heaps, Michele Brown and Scott Crawford. I was amazed at how that former movie theater was transformed into the great space that it is now. The costuming was authentic and melded well with the action. Credit for this goes a large group of people: Linda Lyon, Annie Crawford, Laura Memmott, Glen Carpenter, Shawn Maxfield, Michele Brown, Peggy McCarty, Catherine Drake, Kristina Fowler, Debora Searcy, Vicky Firth and MASK Costume. It is obvious from the program that they have a splendid crew of dedicated volunteers, one that every theater company would be envious of. It was sad to see many empty seats on Saturday night. This is a great theater company and quite a value for the quality of entertainment. I will be returning to see future productions of the Empress Theater on my own dime, and would love to see this production again. If you have never been to the Empress, don’t walk, run to their fine productions. If this show is any indication of the quality of performances they provide, you will not be disappointed.