“Man of La Mancha” is an intricate musical and it takes a skilled director to make its story come alive. Unfortunately, the Long Wharf Theatre production of “Man of La Mancha” (transported from the Chicago Court Theatre production of the same play and directed by the same man, Charles Newell) disappoints in nearly all areas of stage production.
The play contains elements of drama and comedy, mixed with a bit of political statement. It’s coupled with singing and dancing, so its actors must be seasoned and knowledgeable in order to undertake such a complicated story.
“Man of La Mancha,” adapted from the classic novel “Don Quixote,” tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes, a writer/actor/tax collector who has been thrown in a prison cell during the Spanish Inquisition for foreclosing a church. His fellow prisoners place Cervantes on trial for being an “idealist, a bad poet and an honest man.” Cervantes pleads guilty, but asks if he can plead his case by telling a story: the story of Alonso Quijana, an ordinary man who becomes Don Quixote, the knight errant who simply wants to save the world and be with his true love, the prostitute Aldonza, whom he calls Dulcinea; and, of course, singing and dancing must ensue.
A somewhat crazy, but all in all lovely story that falls short in this production. Herbert Perry, who plays Cervantes and Alonso Quijana/Quixote, comes across as too serious in this play. Perry is a classically trained opera singer and, according to his mini-biography in the playbook, he has only performed in operas. “Man of La Mancha” was his first musical. This explains a lot: Perry is a terrible actor, but he has a beautifully rich singing voice.
The female lead, his beloved Dulcinea (portrayed by actress Hollis Resnik) also falls short of her role. Her acting is not nearly as bad as Perry’s, but she adds no magic to the role. Aldonza/Dulcinea is a tragic character who is taught to believe in the imagination by Cervantes, but most of the time Resnik was merely speaking her words, not acting them.
Even the lighting in this production of “Man of La Mancha” is poorly designed. The play takes place in one room, a prison cell, and therefore the light should have stayed the same to produce this effect. Instead, the lighting changed once every five minutes or so, which only confused the audience. Though most of the costuming was decent enough, many of the players were dressed in unspectacular rags that would have befit a 16th century prisoner.
Jim Corti, as Cervantes’ manservant/Don Quixote’s Squire, Sancho Panza, adds a breath of fresh air to the production. Corti has all of the comic roles in the play and he said all of his lines with impeccable comedic timing. Every time Corti had something to say, the crowd uproared in laughter. Corti was able to do the one thing the rest of the leading actors could not: make his character come alive.
The Long Wharf Theatre production of “Man of La Mancha” is a musical not worth seeing. Many of the actors in the ensemble are decent enough, but they are mostly forgettable. Quixote sings of his quest to “dream the impossible dream” and the only impossible dream in this play is how the actors could have gotten such a beautiful story so very wrong.