Classic musicals can either be a hit or a miss for today’s audiences. Man of La Mancha withstands the test of time in its current incarnation at Westport Country Playhouse. Written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, this glorious production has a modern twist, stellar performances by a top-notch cast led by Broadway veteran Philip Hernandez, and inspired direction by Mark Lamos. This show is more than just escapist fantasy; it’s a hopeful entreaty to become our better selves by sticking to our ideals.
Based on the 17th-century novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Man of La Mancha is a play within a play. Cervantes pleads for his possessions in a mock trial with other prisoners while he awaits his hearing with the Spanish Inquisition. Using a play as his defense, Cervantes brings forth his madman, Alonso Quijano, who lost his mind reading about the injustices and inhumanity inflicted on the people of his time. Quijano copes by becoming Don Quixote de la Mancha, a knight errant who embarks on an adventure with his faithful squire Sancho Panza. What follows is the story of the lives, hearts, and minds that are touched by Don Quixote’s fateful quest.
This production of Man of La Mancha is riveting from the start. It boasts an impressive set design by Wilson Chin, complete with a moving staircase and stark prison bars. Along with lighting by Alan C. Edwards and sound by Domonic Sack, the set immediately presents the audience with a dungeon of despair inhabited by the hopeless, forgotten, and forlorn. Cervantes is brought into the dungeon by black-clad guards with the modern appearance of storm troopers. For me, this costume choice by designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar was a bit jarring, but it also made complete sense, connecting the musical’s actions and themes with our current times.
The setup for the first scene, including Cervantes’ introduction to the other prisoners amidst a stage fight, all takes place behind bars. It is not until Cervantes’ play-defense begins that the audience is invited into the story. Prisoners set the stage, the lights and prison bars are raised, and Don Quixote de la Mancha sallies forth, issuing his challenge to “the bleak and unbearable world.” With this exciting and dramatic effect, the production soars.
The strong ensemble cast help propel this musical to its soaring heights. Featured players include Paola Hernandez as Quijano’s niece Antonia, Lulu Picart as his housekeeper, and Carlos Encinias as the Padre. Their song “I’m Only Thinking of Him” is one of the show’s comedic elements, but hides the hypocrisy that can lie behind well-intentioned relatives whose actions are nonetheless self-serving. When Clay Singer joins in as Antonia’s fiancé, Doctor Carrasco, the song takes on a more sinister tone.
Tony Manna also adds a comedic element to the show as squire and servant Sancho Panza. Unlike the relatives, Sancho genuinely loves the old man, whether as Quijano or Quixote, and is constantly at the ready to lend a helping hand with a humorous proverb or two to lighten the mood. Their bromance is on full display in the opening song, “Man of La Mancha,” but Sancho really wins our hearts with his endearing delivery of “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.”
The passionate performances by the leading players bring the show to new heights. Gisela Adisa brings a modern sensibility to kitchen scullion and prostitute Aldonza, helping me look at the character with fresh eyes. Her voice is magnificent and she fully embodies Aldonza with all of the despair, anger, self-disgust, and rage one would expect from someone in her circumstances. She is bewildered by Don Quixote’s tenderness and kept off-balance as she tries to figure out how to deal with his kindness. Unfortunately, just as she begins to believe that there could be a better way, the world violently reminds her of her place and she pays the price for letting down her guard.
The rape scene, as choreographed by choreographer Marcos Santana and fight director/intimacy coach Michael Rossmy, is difficult to watch. Aldonza is treated as less than human and summarily dumped in a hole like garbage. But when she rises again, to sing “Aldonza,” Ms. Adisa infuses the song with so much fury and rage and brokenness, I was reduced to tears. Her brave performance, especially in this, the age of #MeToo, is so raw and so real, I feel that Ms. Adisa is deserving of any and all awards that can be heaped upon her.
As earthy a performance as Ms. Adisa delivers, she is matched by the contrastingly transcendent performance of Philip Hernandez as Cervantes/Don Quixote. In a role that is by turns whimsical, dramatic, and inspirational, Mr. Hernandez is perfectly cast as the chivalrous knight whose lofty ideals change the lives of those around him.
It is very easy to understand why Mr. Hernandez is the only actor in Broadway history to play both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Miserables; he is at once commanding, challenging the world in the song “Man of La Mancha,” and noble in “Golden Helmet of Mambrino.” Mr. Hernandez’s voice reaches the sublime in the hauntingly beautiful song “Dulcinea.” He easily conveys feelings of conviction and inspires hope with the standard “The Impossible Dream,” bringing the audience to its feet with teary eyes and a well-deserved ovation.
Director Mark Lamos is to be congratulated on imbuing this show with new life and purpose in these trying times. The final moments of Man of La Mancha present a stark tableau of some of the challenges facing us, including the red-hooded specter of intolerance, images of the falsely imprisoned, and the continued abuse and subjugation of women. Yet through it all, we are charged with the message of Don Quixote’s quest: never to relinquish our ideals of making the world a better place. Truly inspirational.
Man of La Mancha runs through Sunday, October 14 at Westport Country Playhouse.