MAN OF LA MANCHABook by Dale Wasserman, Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Director – Neale Whitmore
Music Director – Benjamin Brown
Choreographer – Emily Leekha
Stage manager – Katie Dedman Radke
Fight Choreographer – Patrick Costa
Flamenco Choreographer – Saritza Welilla
Costume Design – Dallas Costume Shoppe
Set Design – Rodney Dobbs
Lighting Design – Alex Ammons
Sound Design – Daniel Bergeron
Prop/Set build/Graphic Design – Cindy Tremel
Cervantes/Don Quixote – Darret Heart
Sancho Panza – M. Shane Hurst
Aldoza/Dulcinea - Rebecca Paige
Governor/Innkeeper – Jackie L. Kemp
Duke/Dr. Carrasco. Knight of Mirrors – John Avant III
Padre – Mike Spitters
Antonia – Gabie Hocson
Housekeeper – Susan M. Shaw
Captain/Barber – Josh Hepola
Pedro – Steven Miller
Anselmo/Guitarist – J. Anthony Holmes
Juan/Guard - Joshua Klein
Tenorio – Trace Hughes
Jose/Moorish Thief – Jacob Sellers
Paco?Guard/Moorish Brother – Brandon Williams
Maria/Innkeepers Wife – Kendall Lannin
Fermina/Moorish Thief – Alissa McCaffrey
Moorish Girl.Dancer 0 Stephanie Ormston
Reviewed Performance: 8/5/2018
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
This is a musical within a musical. Cervantes, the author along with his man servant Sancho Panza are placed in a dungeon and await a trial from the Inquisition. The other prisoners decide to hold a mock trial since he’s deemed a bad poet. Cervantes offers in his defense along with all present a re-enactment of a play. They all agree, and the play within the play makes up the bulk of the musical. The play enacted is not a literal interpretation of the famous book of Don Quixote, but it uses some of the same situations and characters. This musical is so expertly written that one need not know anything of the source material to enjoy it.
Theatre Frisco has produced a divine and gorgeous show worth attending. With a wonderful small orchestra conducted by Benjamin Brown, and stellar vocals, it is thrilling. While there are some hiccups here and there in staging and performances, overall, it is marvelous. I’m not one who easily cries, but by the end of the show I was in tears along with most of the audience.
The first thing that impresses upon entering the theatre is the set itself. Rodney Dobbs has design a multi level set that is stunning. It has lamps that flicker, a stairway that is solid yet feels threatening with its lack of railing. Benches, tables, archways, all feel like they came from the 16th century. The set itself sets the mood for the musical and cleverly enough, the orchestra is tucked under the balcony so as to remain somewhat inconspicuous.
Neale Whitmore takes advantage of all the levels this set provides. The audience is seated in a thrust. The only quibble is in that I could tell that some of the audience members in the upper ends of the thrust were obstructed by the performers in the blocking with a degree of frequency. In a thrust configuration usually some area of the audience will have a partially obstructed view from time to time. Had scenes been placed on the downstage area of the thrust, it would have alleviated the amount of time those patrons found themselves facing the back side of the actors. This said, Mr. Whitmore does create beautiful stage pictures that capture the drama of the proceedings quite nicely. He insured that the pacing of the show kept the audiences interest, and allowed the performers to shine and deliver overall stupendous performances.
Because the musical takes place in a dungeon, but the play within happens in various locations, lighting becomes crucial in helping the audience determine that a new scene is taking place. Alex Ammons lighting design clues the audience when a scene begins and ends without having to depend on black outs. The extensive shift in colors, lit areas, and brightness helps unravel what could be confusing as it defines each scene. This intricacy in the light plot took a lot of work. But what makes it especially outstanding is it doesn’t call attention to itself. The lights didn’t just illuminate the performers well, and set the mood, it was all done without it ever being obvious.
Dallas Costume Shoppe is credited for the costuming and it is stupendous. Whoever made the choices in costuming did a marvelous job. Not only did they have the correct feel but they captured the essence of each character. For example: I knew immediately who Aldonza was just by her costume.
As far as sound design goes: WOW! In a musical the performers depend on microphones to be able to be heard over the orchestra. What Daniel Bergeron did in his sound design was he made sure the amplification was turned off during the dialogue. The theatre is small enough the performers do not need their voices augmented while speaking. The transition of plain air and amped was executed flawlessly. Many incidental sounds take place throughout the show and they were so well done there is no way to discern if it was live or via the sound system it was that seamless.
The Man of La Mancha is not known as a musical that requires much dancing. Emily Leekha choreographed some sequences that were never over the ability of the performers. If prisoners in a dungeon were to break out in dance, it would strain credulity if they broke out in a number full of pizzazz. Leekha hits it on the nose with the choreography that helps push the storyline forward and doesn’t tax the performers. The Flamenco choreography by Saritza Velilla followed in the same vein. I knew instantly it was Flamenco as performed by prisoners.
Fight Choreographer Patrick Costa excelled in his staging. Even though it was obvious that the performers never struck each other the intricacy of the lengthy, vicious, and elaborate fights became almost like dance that conveyed the brutality.
The cast in this production is a wonder to behold. Casting choices did surprise me, and may be seen as controversial. Having been raised in rural Mexico, there is nothing more offensive to me than when I see a play or a movie in which a white person plays a person of color, or someone does brown face. I realize that The Man of La Mancha is set in Spain, and that most of the characters would be either White, Moor or Al-Andalus. BUT, this musical has traditionally cast a non-White Hispanic as Sancho Panza. There aren’t many leading roles for non-white Hispanics in American Musical Theatre, so Sancho Panza is a coveted role. Even though I am from Mexico, as an actor I would never play the role because I’m white (American Mother, Italian father). So what did Theatre Frisco do? It was very apparent that the cast was chosen based on their talents for the roles. There are archetypes in this story, and even though there is a well established history in casting certain roles based on race and psychical requirements, Theatre Frisco shunned it and cast everyone according to their talents regardless of race, age, or physical appearance. To be sure, I did inquire if this was the case after seeing the show and they confirmed it. They had enough of a turn out at auditions to cast this in a traditional way, but they opted to shun convention and base it on talent. I’m glad to report that this is indeed a multi-ethnic cast of all ages and sizes with many people playing the roles that usually belong to other races, age brackets, or physiques. Case in point: Cervantes/Don Quixote is usually tall and lean, not average height and robust. Sancho Panza is traditionally cast with someone that looks not White. The Duke is usually White, not Black. Etc, etc. etc.
While some may find controversy in not adhering to traditional casting, this non-traditional casting -and thankfully there was no make-up used to make the cast look less or more ethnic- was quite refreshing. It is important to note: the costuming and styling of the actors was so on point that even though the actors didn’t always match the physique of the character, it was easy to spot who each character was. This production proves that is possible to do non-traditional casting of a well established musical and it won’t affect the quality of the production. In fact, it enhanced it, because they truly got the best performer for each role. Had the production white washed a couple of the roles while leaving the rest of the traditional way of casting intact I would have been outraged. The way it was done since race, age, and physical appearance didn’t matter, I was able to get caught up in the characters and plot.
Darret Hart played the role of Cervantes/Don Quixote. Even though he didn’t look at all like a Don Quixote, outside of sporting the traditional beard, it was very obvious why he was cast: His voice. The minute he began to sing I got goose bumps. “The Impossible Dream” is the song that is most famous from this show, and one I’ve personally never cared for till after hearing him sing it. Glorious. It is not an easy song to sing and it requires a singer that can go from a baritone range to tenor. Hart does it effortlessly. It’s meant to be a show stopper and he made it such. In fact, every time he sang he practically stopped the show. His acting was a little uneven. His dual roles as Cervantes/Don Quixote weren’t as defined in the first act: Don Quixote is a bit on the crazy side living in a delusion, whereas Cervantes is grounded in reality. By the second act this duality was clearly portrayed. What was a fine acting performance in Act 1, became magnificent in Act 2.
M. Shane Hurst as Sancho Panza was radiant and charming. He captured the quirkiness and the comedy required to do the role effectively. One especially nice touch to his performance is how he presents Sancho: you are never sure if he is simply not very bright or smart enough to know that much in life is out of control so why worry about it? While vocally he wasn’t the strongest singer in the cast, he managed to deliver his songs imbued with so much character that it would almost seem out of place if he had a great voice. He thoroughly captured the essence of Sancho Panza.
John Avant III played the multiple roles of Dr Carrasco, the Duke, and the Knight of the Mirrors. Wow! He transformed himself so completely both vocally and physically, that it wasn’t till I got home that I realized after looking at the program that it was the same actor playing all three roles. The same can be said for Jackie L. Kemp as the Governor and Innkeeper, Josh Hepola as the Captain and Barber, Kendall Lannin as Maria and the Innkeepers wife, and Alissa McCaffrey as Fermina and the Moorish thief. This isn’t to denigrate the other performers who played dual or triple roles it’s just that these actors so transformed themselves that I didn’t even realize they were the same people.
I also must commend J. Anthony Holmes who played Anselmo/Guitarist. Not only was his guitar playing quite good, but he had a charisma that filled the stage, and though his role is small, it created quite an impact.
Rebecca Paige played Aldonza/Dulcinea. Her character commanded the stage every time she was on. Her role doesn’t require to act as two different people. Aldonza resists being called Dulcinea because she doesn’t want to be a part of the play, but eventually gives in. She still, nonetheless, retains the fiery temperament of Aldonza but discovers her softer and kinder side. This is the character that evolves the most in the musical and Paige captures the evolution perfectly. She is also has a sublime voice that can be soft and ethereal but when needed can belt the roof off the building. Like Hart, she too sent shivers up my spine with her vocal prowess.
The other powerhouse vocalist in this cast was Mike Spitters. As Padre he opened act 2 with the song “To Each his Dulcinea” and near the end sings “The Psalm.” These are two songs that I wouldn’t have thought of as show stoppers. Spitters delivery caused my jaw to hit the floor. What a singer!
Rounding out this talented cast were Gabie Hocson, Trace Hughes, Joshua Klein, Steen Miller, Jacob Sellers, and Stephanie Ormston. Though they all played smaller roles, and frequently served as the chorus, they each created identifiable characters and had their own stand out moments.
Should you go see The Man of La Mancha? Absolutely. While structurally Act 1 is the weaker of the two acts (though sometimes it is presented without an intermission) because it has so much exposition, the second act of the musical packs such an emotional wallop that you can see why this musical has endured. Bravo Theatre Frisco for mounting a groundbreaking production of The Man of La Mancha. It will leave you breathless.
Black Box Theater, Frisco Discovery Center
8004 N Dallas Parkway, Suite 200,
Frisco TX, 75034
Now through August 19, 2018
Performances are Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 2:30 PM. Tickets $15 - $25. For information and tickets visit www.TheatreFrisco.com or call 972-370-2266.