After more than three decades of friendship that began in student productions at Wichita State University and continued through successful careers on Broadway, in London and Los Angeles, Ray Wills and Karla Burns are back home and together again.
“Karla and I go back all the way to when WSU had summer theater and when the Marple Theatre was around,” Wills says.
The two are teaming up to star in the Forum Theatre’s revival of “Man of La Mancha,” Dale Wasserman’s Tony Award-winning 1965 classic about writer Miguel de Cervantes confronting his idealistic, if delusional, literary alter ego, Don Quixote, and the loyal sidekick who tirelessly serves them both.
The show opens Friday following a Thursday preview and runs through May 4.
Wills, who plays Cervantes/Quixote, is best known for Broadway’s record-setting (12 Tony Awards) “The Producers,” going on for star Nathan Lane numerous times and later doing the same in Los Angeles for Jason Alexander. He’s back in Wichita on a self-imposed career sabbatical, teaching acting courses in local schools “to give back” to the community.
Burns plays Cervantes’ servant, Sancho Panza, who sticks by the troubled writer through thick and thin – including in the dungeon of the 16th century Spanish Inquisition. Burns is a Tony nominee and the first black performer to win London’s Olivier Award, both for “Show Boat.” She originally returned to Wichita for family reasons but has stayed to coach and mentor young singers.
Sarah Gale McQuery, a 2009 WSU grad and veteran of local theater since age 7, plays the battered and bitter prostitute Aldonza, who, through the chaste devotion of eternally chivalrous knight Quixote, ultimately learns to see herself as beautiful Dulcinea, worthy of love.
Paul Edwin Jackson is directing, with Tim Raymond leading a five-piece orchestra through familiar songs such as the rousing title tune (“It is I, Don Quixote, Lord of La Mancha”), the lyrically haunting “Dulcinea” and, of course, “The Quest,” popularly known as “The Impossible Dream.”
“This is such an interesting show because it’s like metatheatre as Cervantes involves his fellow prisoners in acting out the story of Don Quixote,” Wills says, referencing the technique of playing comedy and tragedy off each other simultaneously to achieve both entertainment and empathy. “It’s not just tap-dancing and chorus girls like most musicals.”
Wills, who says he’s finally old enough to play this coveted role, is intrigued by the challenge because Cervantes “was such a mad genius.”
“Cervantes had an incredible life. He was a soldier who was wounded in battle. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Greeks and became a slave. He wrote great literature but never saw any money from his writing. It’s not clear why he was imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. He may have imposed taxes on a church. But he was so charming, witty and intelligent that he always talked himself out of trouble,” Wills says.
“Was Cervantes mad? Probably. That goes with the territory when you’re a genius. But he was a man who brought grace to the world. He was like his creation, Quixote, in wanting to combat man’s inhumanity to man. He wanted love to be pure. He wanted to right wrongs,” Wills says.
“When I’m playing him, I inspire myself. I actually still get choked up by some of the passages,” he says. “I do identify with Cervantes’ feelings. Some of my New York cynicism has melted away.”
In a bit of cross-gender casting, Burns is playing Cervantes’ male servant, Sancho, as a woman. But she sees no problem with that because loyalty knows no gender.
“I’m not a woman playing a guy. I’m definitely a lady. There are feelings between the two but they are not romantic. I have a song where I say that ‘I like him,’ but it doesn’t take on any different connotation than if a man were singing it,” Burns says.
“I can appreciate his love for Dulcinea without jealousy because my character has decided to be the best servant she can be – the servant of servants. That is her mission. She will be whatever he needs when he needs it. She will always see him through his troubles because she believes in him.”
For McQuery, who fell in love with “Man of La Mancha” when she saw WSU’s production at the age of 10, playing Aldonza/Dulcinea is a serious change from her usual roles, like the bodacious Dolly of “One Man, Two Guvs” or klutzy princess Fred of “Once Upon a Mattress.”
“I think of her mostly as Aldonza, but she is really a complex character made up of three layers. She is an unnamed prisoner who hides in the shadows, she is the prostitute Aldonza and she is Quixote’s ideal Dulcinea. It’s refreshing to think about all the layers. But the challenge is to get across all those layers,” McQuery says.
For director Jackson, “Man of La Mancha” is surprisingly timely even though the story is set in the 16th century and was written for a 1960s audience.
“Cervantes, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare and who died on the same day, cared deeply about the poor and how they have always been demeaned – just like they are being demeaned today,” Jackson says.
“He reflected an abiding concern for the common man. Like Shakespeare, he used language of the people. That’s why he was so popular. He was a man trying to change the world by using his imagination. It is impossible to resist how Cervantes spoke truth to power,” the director says.