Arts & Culture

April 13, 2014

Review: Forum Theatre presents delightful ‘Man of La Mancha’

The Forum Theatre presents the classic “Man of La Mancha,” featuring Wichita’s own Ray Wills.

The Forum Theatre’s revival of the classic “Man of La Mancha” is gorgeous to look at in both set and costumes, and wonderful to hear with voices that thrill and inspire as it spins a play-within-a-play about 16th century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes and his idealistic, chivalrous and utterly mad knight Don Quixote.

And Wichita’s own Ray Wills, who has had a successful career on Broadway, is an inspired choice in the dual role of Cervantes/Quixote pursuing their “Impossible Dream.”

But there is an unevenness to the pacing that seems to arise from a too-cautious approach to choreography and staged fight sequences. Opening night Friday, the players seemed so intent on getting every movement precise and correct that it slowed the action and drained it of spontaneity and passion. The result was curiously formal rather than realistic. I suspect that’s only temporary and that the pace will pick up in future performances when players become more comfortable and confident with their moves designed by Angela Clark and Danette Baker.

Tim Raymond at the keyboard led a seven-piece orchestra that provided rich accompaniment, although there was some shaky brass in the overture.

The 1965 show by Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics) comes from an earlier Broadway era when singers had trained voices closer to opera than pop, and director Paul E. Jackson pays homage to that by ensuring that even minor characters have vocal power that compels.

It’s a satisfying surprise when nameless raggedy prisoners, scrubby thieves and murderers (particularly those played by richly resonant tenor Ted Dvorak and baritone/bass Larry Hartley) burst forth with unexpectedly sweet sounds and exquisite harmonies.

The show, which won a Tony as best musical, is a complex and thoughtful tale about Cervantes, who was arrested during the Spanish Inquisition and charged – metaphorically – with being “an idealist, a poet and an honest man.” The action is a mock trial by his fellow prisoners in a dank underground dungeon testing the ideals of his alter ego knight, Don Quixote, and “the melancholy burden of sanity.”

The silver-haired Wills skillfully embodies the elegant wit and posture of the aristocratic Cervantes as well as the dignified, if shabby, gravitas of bumbling Quixote. Wills easily moves back and forth between the two, giving a subtly distinct voice to each.

Wills also has the three best songs in the show (indeed, the only ones must people recognize). He delivers a rousing “Man of La Mancha (It Is I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha)” then woos us with his beautiful love song, “Dulcinea.” But it is “The Quest,” popularly known as “The Impossible Dream,” that stops the show with its stirring power and heartbreaking self-sacrifice.

Karla Burns, a fellow Wichitan also with a successful Broadway career, plays Quixote’s loyal servant, Sancho, in a bit of unusual cross-gender casting. Sancho provides some comic relief, and the open-faced Burns is a master of timing and shtick. She also has a powerful singing voice from gospel and Broadway traditions, but that voice, sadly, is underused in this character, whose “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and “A Little Gossip,” are pleasant, but negligible. Too, there may have been a sound problem opening night because her lyrics were hard to understand.

Sarah Gale McQuery is a powerful presence as the bedraggled and bitter prostitute, Aldonza, who is transformed emotionally into Quixote’s ideal lady, Dulcinea – meaning “sweetness.” McQuery stalks the stage with barely concealed rage at a world that has abused her since birth. She sings “It’s All the Same” about the anonymous men in her life and “What Does He Want of Me?” to question the purity of Quixote’s motives to exalt her. While her soprano is glorious in song, it sometimes goes shrill in emotional non-music moments.

The impressive set by Tyler Lessin with shadowy mood lighting by Sean Roberson creates a realistic dungeon with high, gray stone walls with long staircases for prisoners to descend to their doom. The detailed costumes by Kathryn Page Hauptman and Valerie Horn range from prisoners rags to monkish robes to gypsy glitz to blinding mirrored armor of Quixote’s nemesis, the evil Enchanter.

One amusing thing is that the fog used to give a dank atmosphere occasionally hissed in from the top of the stairs at inopportune times, upstaging a couple of musical numbers. Would that it could slip in on little cat feet like the poet says.

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