Plaza Theatre Company
Directed by G. Aaron Siler
Music Director – Soni Barrus
Stage Management – Lindsay Hardisty
Costume Design – Tina Barrus
Sound Design – G. Aaron Siler
Light Design – G. Aaron Siler
Set Design – G. Aaron Siler and JaceSon P. Barrus
Property Design – Tammie Phillips
Horse Heads – Parker Barrus
Cervantes/Don Quixote – Joel Lagrone
Aldonza – Shannon Loose
Sancho Panza – Michael McMillian
Padre – Martin Guerra
The Governor/Innkeeper – Doug Henry
Antonia – Emily Warwick
Housekeeper – Pam Valle
Barber/Guitarist – Jason Phillip Cole
Pedro – Robert Shores
Anselmo – Solomon Abah
Juan – JaceSon P. Barrus
Captain of the Inquisition/Paco – Jay A. Cornils
Jose – Jay Lewis
Fermina – Molly Morgan
Reviewed Performance 8/10/2013
Reviewed by Kristy Blackmon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
For all of the wonderful new shows, both musicals and plays, produced every year, there will always be a special place for the old standards from the glory days of mid-century American musical theatre. In the D/FW metroplex, few companies rival Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne in this genre. A mix of the company's leadership, core group of both on and offstage talent, the audience and theater space makes Plaza the land of milk and honey for those musicals many of us know and love so well.
The one continual challenge for Plaza that I've seen is that their small theater-in-the-round causes issues with staging and transitions. I've written before about the blackouts necessitated by the quick and intricate scene changes of complicated shows, and errors in judgment with the placement of bulky set pieces that block the line of sight for significant portions of the audience. In many cases, it's just that the shows Plaza produces—these big, old Broadway musicals in particular—have sets just as grand as their scores, and at times they're just too much for the small space.
All of these points taken together in consideration made Man of La Mancha, currently running at Plaza through September 7, a near perfect show for this theatre. Director G. Aaron Siler's enthusiasm for the show was apparent from the program's Director's Note and his opening speech to the audience. Man of La Mancha is a different kind of musical, he advised those in the audience who were unfamiliar with the show. Though this is very true, I don't think the qualification was necessary. Plaza's production was enjoyable on 99% of all fronts with or without an explanation.
Based on the canonical novel Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, Man of La Mancha puts a twist on the themes presented by Cervantes in the book by telling the story as a play within a play. Cervantes, along with his faithful servant, is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. In the squalid holding cell awaiting his turn for questioning, he is forced to defend his possessions and his profession against the other prisoners.
For his defense, he stages a re-enactment of his manuscript, which details the story of one Alonso Quijana, a "crazy" old man who believes himself a knight-errant by the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha, set forth on a quest for justice, chivalry, truth, honor and faith.
The play-within-a-play was as the absolute perfect theatrical genre for Plaza's limited space. Siler never let the audience lose sight of the "play within a play" concept. In past shows, the audience was lost every time there was a blackout to change scenes. With Man of La Mancha, such transitions were unnecessary; the settings of the real play never changes. We are always in the Spanish prison watching Cervantes and his fellow inmates stage the show. For their part, the inhabitants of the prison improvise set pieces, props, and in many cases, costumes from anything that's lying around which then becomes part of the action in which the audience partakes. Thus, there are no blackouts and any slips with most of the technical elements can be excused as part of the clumsiness of the improvising inmates. This keeps the pace of the show hopping quickly along, avoiding the pacing problems of some other Plaza shows I've seen.
The set, props and costumes were almost inextricably intertwined due to the "homemade" nature of the production. A basket becomes a horse mask, a rag becomes a silken scarf and two twirling broomsticks held perpendicular to each other become the arms of a windmill. Again, the limited resources worked to the advantage of the show, eliminating any need to break the spell. The set was simple: a raised square platform in the middle of the stage surrounded by barrels and boulders and a small recessed niche in one corner for highlighted vignettes. Designed by Siler and JaceSon P. Barrus, the set was extremely versatile, evocative and easy for the actors to maneuver into place.
Much of the staging was dependent not just on the set but also on the lighting. This was the only part of the production that fell short. Siler, who designed both the light and the sound, made heavy use of isolated spotlights for dramatic effect and to highlight action he wished to be separate from the larger scene of the prison.
Unfortunately, the actors failed to find their light the majority of the time, leaving spots to fall on their noses and toes. At first I thought this was a lack of experience on the part of some of the younger players since finding the light is a lesson learned by the greenest actors. However, the problem spanned the cast, from rookies to veterans, leaving me puzzled as to the reason or the solution. The moments when the lighting technique worked were powerful; unfortunately, those moments were too few and far between.
Like the set, the props by Tammie Phillips were flexible enough to be used for multiple purposes when needed. Tina Barrus' costume design was impeccable as always. From prisoners to highborn ladies, priests to evil sorcerers, and nobles to scholars, the costumes were spot on and beautiful. The costume and prop designs needed to work hand in hand in Man of La Mancha, and it was difficult to tell at times where Phillips' design ended and Barrus' began. The perfect example of overlap between the two was the brilliant pair of horse heads worn by two members of the prison ensemble and produced by Parker Barrus, which drew laughter and a smattering of applause upon their first appearance.
Siler's sound design was very effective, most notably in two ways. First, it was perfectly evocative of action occurring offstage. During the first half of the play, for instance, Don Quixote fights a group of giants, which are actually windmills, offstage, and the sound effects painted a clear picture of the action the audience couldn't see. Second, and most important, the music never once drowned out a performer despite the sometimes breathy vocals of some of the players. Neither was it overwhelmed by the louder members of the cast. Many don't realize what a tricky mix this is to achieve, but Siler obviously understood his technique. This was one of the first shows in a long while during which I had no complaints about the sound.
Joel Lagrone gave a near perfect performance as both Miguel Cervantes, the gentleman poet, and Don Quixote, the dotty old character played by Cervantes, who wears a shaving basin on his head, carries a sword twisted into a curlicue and totters around in a world of make-believe while still, inexplicably, maintaining an unflagging air of dignity. Lagrone was a joy to watch as he transformed back and forth from Cervantes to Quixote. Both of these characters had their own forms of courage, wisdom and faith in humanity, and in both roles Lagrone was a star. His Cervantes was refined without being dandified and well-spoken without being snobbish, and his Don Quixote was remarkable; suddenly, with the acquisition of some white in his beard and a battered armor chest plate, Lagrone aged twenty years and became the perfect gentle, faithful and noble old man to show us how beautiful the world can be if we just choose to see the good in life. His rendition of "Impossible Dream" was tremendously touching as an old, feeble madman becomes, in that moment, supremely noble and emblematic of all the grace that man is capable of.
Shannon Loose's portrayal of Aldonza, whom Don Quixote calls his lady Dulcinea, was richly nuanced and ran the gamut of emotion. Aldonza's anger and despair over her miserable lot in life was palpable and her transformation from a hardened, prickly cynic to a woman moved to trust in the "impossible dream" was in turns brilliantly comical, utterly heartbreaking and, ultimately, inspiring. Loose's raspy, gritty speaking voice morphed into a cool, clear soprano that was surprising and very successful. The contrast served to highlight her vulnerability in songs such as "What Does He Want from Me" and her "Impossible Dream" reprise. During less gentle songs, like the raunchy "It's All the Same", it was less effective; the transitions were a little rough and inconsistent.
However, all is forgiven during Aldonza's dramatic turning point mid-way through the show when her faith in Don Quixote, her fellow man and herself is questioned violently.
Loose's performance is devastating as she pours all of Aldonza's self-loathing, hopelessness and rage into the angry confessional "Aldonza". By the show's close, however, just as Alonso Quijana has transformed himself into Don Quixote, so has Aldonza transformed herself into his lady, the noble, pure and faithful Dulcinea.
If Lagrone is the ultimate example of a seasoned performer well-acquainted with his craft, and Loose is a musical actress at her peak, Michael McMillian as Sancho Panza is a young talent with a wealth of potential. Sweet and earnest, with a knack for comedic timing and the rare ability to stay interesting while not detracting when he isn't the center of the action, McMillian is a future powerhouse. His vocals were perfect, his energy unfaltering and his depiction of Panza was downright heartwarming. When Dulcinea asks why he's following this doddering old man around as he pursues visions of lunacy, Panza answers with the genuine (and slightly bemused) solo "I Like Him" (listed in the Plaza program as "The Missive"). McMillian pulled off Panza's sincere loyalty, easygoing nature and slight air of naiveté with ease. His physical comedy never missed and he consistently held his own while never seeming to compete with Lagrone; showing not just maturity but also wisdom as any attempt to upstage the leading man playing either Cervantes or Quixote would surely have been cringe-worthy.
Every single cast member, in fact, was impressive: versatile, energetic, engaged and capable of making the audience laugh and their eyes mist over. Man of La Mancha is a brilliant show, but like many brilliant pieces of theatre, it falls flat without a director and cast who understand its layers of meaning and how best to convey them. Unlike other musicals where a grand score, intricate dance numbers or extravagant sets and costumes carry the show, the cast of this musical is what makes or breaks it.
Martin Guerra as Padre, the conflicted village priest from Alonso Quijana's home, did a fantastic job showcasing his character's internal battle between believing what society tells him is "sane" and his inability to see any harm in Alonso Quijana's fantasies. His gentle rendition of "To Each His Dulcinea" was a calm and contemplative moment that gave the show a nice rest between adventures.
Luke Hunt was wonderfully pompous as Carasco, Alonso Quijana's scholarly and snobbish soon-to-be nephew, who devises a cruel scheme to rid the old man of his delusions. He is the character the audience loves to hate.
His intended bride, Antonia, is played by Emily Warwick, a young woman with a beautiful voice and the ability to switch between sniffling noblewoman and guffawing low-born prisoner with ease. Doug Henrie, as both the "Governor" of the prison and the Innkeeper in the play, showed a softness of heart covered by varying degrees of bluster, and the group of men who make up the Muleteers who frequent his establishment (both the prison and the inn) ranged from amusingly ribald to frighteningly vicious.
The beauty of Man of La Mancha is that it encourages us to hope and to believe in nobility and justice. In an age where the normal mode of human interaction is cynical and full of suspicion, where it seems as though everyone from politicians to strangers on the Internet are determined to make us lose our faith in the innate goodness of people, we need our Don Quixotes. We need our quests and impossible dreams. Plaza's production of this show reemphasized the timelessness of a story that remains as relevant today as it was in the sixteenth century.
MAN OF LA MANCHA
Plaza Theatre Company
111 S. Main Street, Cleburne, TX, 76033
Plays through September 7th
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30pm, and Saturday matinee at 3:00pm.
Tixts are $15.00, seniors (65+) & students (HS and college)- $14.00, children (12 and under) - $13.00.
For info & tix go to www.plaza-theatre.com or call the box office at 817-202-0600.