Amarillo — Chivalry is not dead, at least not in Texas Panhandle this weekend. It lives on in the Amarillo Opera’s superb production of Man of La Mancha, a musical about the Spanish Inquisition. Don Quixote stands up for the honor of all of us as he battles windmills and generally creates mayhem on his knightly quest.
Baritone Ron Raines, best known for his role as the evil Alan Spaulding on the long-running soap opera Guiding Light, gives a definitive performance as the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.
The 1964 musical, with book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion, and based on Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote — considered the first modern novel — is strange in that the leading character never leaves the stage and is the center of the action all the way through. Yet, it is really an ensemble piece in that all of the other characters in the story are equally as critical. So, this combination star vehicle and ensemble musical succeeds by the strong cast that Artistic Director David O’Dell assembled as much as the considerable talents of Raines.
While Raines is best known for his role in Guiding Light, which he played from 1994 until its cancelation in 2009, his virile baritone voice brought him equal success on Broadway and with opera companies. He made his debut at New York City Opera as Danilo in The Merry Widow and appeared with the company in other operettas over the years such as Naughty Marietta, Rose-Marie, The Gypsy Princess, The Desert Song, The New Moon and Die Fledermaus. In fact, his career might have been concentrated in opera except for a turning point. In 1994, he was offered a part in the national touring production of The Sound of Music with Marie Osmond, but on the same day he was offered the role in Guiding Light. Raines has continued to work on stage, though, in such works as South Pacific, A Little Night Music and Show Boat.
It is helpful to remember that Cervantes was writing a satire of the romantic fiction of the time about knights in shining armor and damsels in distress. His knight is bonkers and his fair lady a whore. Yet, they have the nobility of spirit while the rest of the world is brutal.
Part of the complexity of the role in Man of La Mancha — which is one of those musicals that opera companies program — is that Raines has to portray three different characters. The first is Cervantes, the author of the book, who is telling the story. The second is the leading role in that story, Señor Quijana, and his delusional alter ego, Don Quixote. Raines accomplishes this difficult task with great subtly. While his character changes, it’s always clear that they are aspects of the same man. He even slightly altered his impressive singing voice to fit each occasion.
As his beleaguered sidekick, Sancho Panza, Michael J. Farina brings an unfailing comic sense to the role without ever exaggerating or descending into shtick. He alters his singing voice into a high-pitched squeal which offered as wide a contrast from Raines’ deep baritone as you could possibly imagine. He is ever put-upon yet ever patient with his deranged master.
Aldonza is a serving wench and that services both the kitchen at the inn and the men who hang out there. She is human refuse to everyone except for Don Quixote, to whom she is the fair maiden, Dulcinea. Mikki Sodergren is a little too refined for most of the show but really comes into her own in “Aldonza” in which she confronts Don Quixote with the horrors and reality of her life.
Two of the best performances in supporting roles are Clay Stribling as the Innkeeper and Brent Turner as the Padre. Don Quixote thinks that this ramshackle inn is a lordly castle and Stribling’s innkeeper shows sympathy to the obviously insane knight. His wife, portrayed by Diana Barr, is less tolerant of both Quixote and her husband’s understanding. Turner’s Padre is ever patient as well and displays one of the best voices on the stage.
Señor Quijana’s household is astonished by his transformation into Quixote and at a loss of what to do. His niece, Antonia, played by Sarah Beckham-Turner, is concerned about her mad uncle but, Dr. Sanson Carrasco, her fiancé, is more worried about the estate. His housekeeper, played by Candace Carpenter, is equally at wits end. The three of them make for quite a nefarious grouping that eventually brings Quioxte face to face with reality, crushing his spirit in the process.
Two other roles need mention. Eric Macias is terrific in the role of the traveling barber, whose shaving bowl becomes Quixote’s golden helmet. Job Najera, who is waiting for his turn on top of Aldonza, is appropriately menacing as the head of the rowdy boy who hang out in the Inn.
Conductor Andy Anderson does a fine job of keeping with the stage and giving the correct Spanish feel to the mixed meter. The brass is a little on the loud side but the balance was generally good. The director, Dean Anthony, keeps the action moving without a lot of extraneous movement. The fine singing of the chorus, which has as large a part in the show as any of the leads, is thanks to the chorus master, Nathan Fryml.
As for visuals, costumes (by Wardrobe Witchery) and scenery (by Pensacola Opera) are rented; but special mention must be made of the huge staircase, which lowers and raises with all of the over-amplified moans, groans and crackles of at 90-year-old arthritic.
If the plot sounds confusing, there is a fine synopsis in the program. The show is not confusing to experience and this is a first-class production, much to Amarillo’s credit. The hit song from the show, “The Impossible Dream,” is also fitting for this production of this seminal synthesis of musical and opera.
As the lyrics go “…the world is much better for this.”