Although based on a novel written in 1605, a musical drama about a fervent idealist facing a stubbornly vindictive government can seem surprisingly timely today.
The musical in question is Man of La Mancha, based on Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which opened on Broadway in 1965, an era of Vietnam War protests. But such are the show’s sweeping themes of compassion, good versus evil and the power of imagination that it remains topical whenever it is revived.
Sensing the material’s durability, director Bruce Linser – a frequent guest artist for MNM Productions – saw no need to impose any conceptual staging on the work. He simply gathered a capable cast, trusted the multi-level script and got out of the way to let the show work its magic.
It was adaptor Dale Wasserman’s inspired notion to put Cervantes onstage, thrust along with his manservant into a Seville prison to await trial for heresy before the Inquisition. But before that trial, he must plead his case in front of his fellow prisoners, acting out the history of a deluded, windmill-tilting, would-be knight, enlisting the members of the kangaroo court jury to play the needed supporting characters.
And along the way, the idealism of Quixote – as well as Cervantes – rubs off on those gruff prisoners and, very likely, the Rinker Playhouse audience too.
Yes, Spanish literature majors could carp about how much of the classic novel has been jettisoned to make room for Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s flamenco-tinged score. Then again, for a commercial piece of musical theater, an impressive amount of the original picaresque saga has been retained. Surely the adaptors of Les Misérables must have been emboldened by the critical and popular success of Man of La Mancha 22 years earlier.
Anchoring the MNM cast is part-time Boynton Beach resident Michael McKenzie as Cervantes/Quixote, who emphasizes the acting potential in the dual roles – Well, really three roles if you count Alonso Quijana, the doddering old man seen in the final deathbed sequence. He certainly has the vocal pipes for the assignments – and for the show’s Big Song, “The Impossible Dream” – but he wisely chooses to interpret the lyrics rather than boom out the number, as so many before him have.
Those who have seen Anna Lise Jensen in such area productions as Fun Home, Bridges of Madison County and Passion are already convinced of her versatility. Still, we were not quite prepared for the full-throated, bewildered and ultimately volcanic power of her scullery maid, Aldonza, whom Quixote envisions as high-born lady Dulcinea. Jensen alone is reason enough to see, or more probably revisit, La Mancha.
Chances are it is shtick-averse director Linser who talked Mark Kirschenbaum out of the Borscht Belt cadences written into the role of Quixote’s philosophical sidekick, Sancho Panza. That makes sense dramatically, but it flattens out many of his punchlines. As the Padre, Milton Mendez delivers his solo, “To Each His Dulcinea,” beautifully and Slow Burn fixture Matthew Korinko lends solid support as the all-too-rational Dr. Carrasco.
MNM’s physical production is in the able hands of Dustin Hamilton, whose craggy dungeon set is dominated by a stage-wide staircase for the Inquisition’s frequent dramatic entrances. And note the lighting subtleties supplied by Clifford Spurlock, which delineate the prison scenes from Cervantes’ narrative fable.
When most musicals are content to serve up light entertainment, Man of La Mancha reaches for darker, more thought-provoking fare with palpable emotional uplift. And with Linser’s MNM production, those qualities are much in evidence.
MAN OF LA MANCHA, MNM Productions, Kravis Center Rinker Playhouse, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. $65. 561-832-7469.