Dallas — The ever-popular Man of La Mancha doesn’t require a complicated concept. Find a terrific Don Quixote to sing the role, and you’re more than halfway home—and on Lyric Stage’s opening night at the venerable and ornate Majestic Theatre, popular Lyric bass-baritone Christopher Sanders filled the bill—and then some.
Then, if the Don’s body mike dies halfway through the first act and he just keeps going—even through “The Impossible Dream” without a blink or a wild look thrown at the stage manager in the wings—you have a great story to take home with you, too. The gentleman has a big, big voice, and somehow he made it work.
And was that all? Nope.
According to Lyric founding producer Steven Jones (fielding congratulations and comments in the lobby after the show), faithful squire Sancho Panza (Colin Phillips) dislocated his knee during rehearsal two days before opening. Yet there he was, with a sturdy cane and an eye-catching bandage, hitting the back rows with another big voice—and getting plenty of laughs as the show’s comic relief.
In short, the show did go on, in the best traditions of classic American musical theater. And one hopes the whole cast went out for a stiff drink after—or maybe a triple-dip cone.
Man of La Mancha (with music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion, and a script by Dale Wasserman) has been delighting audiences since its Greenwich Village opening in 1965. And if you don’t already know the story by heart, here’s a thumbnail of this “play within a play”: Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) is thrown into prison to await questioning by the dread Inquisition. In the meantime, his fellow prisoners offer a deal: they won’t beat him up (and destroy his manuscript of Don Quixote) if he acts out the story for them—the tale of an old Spanish gentleman, Alonso Quixana, who drifts into fantasy and imagines he is a knight of old, the great “Don Quixote.”
At its apex, this La Mancha provides what we’ve long come to expect from Lyric Stage: resonant, rich sound from a live orchestra (in fine form under music director and conductor Bruce Greer)…excellent, fill-the-house choral singing from the ensemble…and some fine character performances that give smaller roles interest and weight. (The 17-piece orchestra is, of course, half the size Lyric used to field at their longtime digs in the Irving Arts Center—but at the Majestic, both pit and performance hall are more compact, and the volume and quality of sound is high.)
Playing the old man’s niece (Ashlee Waldbauer), housekeeper (Melinette Pallares), and local Padre/priest (Jonathan McInnis), this trio’s blended, distinct voices make the harmonies of “I’m Only Thinking of Him” a treat to hear. Toward the end of the show, the Padre scores again with a beautiful tenor rendition of the old Latin hymn De Profundis (“The Psalm”). James Williams and Deborah Brown are a funny pairing as the innkeeper and his wife, much put-upon at having to host Don Quixote as a repeat customer—and JT Snyder, a Texas Christian University theatre student, strums a gorgeous Spanish guitar that punctuates a few moments onstage. As Dr. Carrasco, the uber-logical scholar who disapproves of Quixana/Don Q’s fantasies, John Tillman is a lean, mean adversary. And Chris Quiroz is amusing as the traveling barber whose shaving bowl becomes Quixote’s Holy Grail—well, if the Grail were a hat.
In two particular ways, however, this La Mancha lagged behind the high standard Lyric has set for itself. First was the casting of Danielle Estes as Aldonza/Dulcinea. Estes has done fine work in many previous Lyric productions (Lilli/Kate in Kiss Me, Kate; Helen in The Golden Apple), and her beautiful, clear soprano finally sang out during the finale of La Mancha, a reprise of “The Impossible Dream.” But for whatever technical reasons, too much of her singing had an abrasive top register that didn’t simply sound like a portrayal—the “alley cat” character Aldonza is—but a singer struggling in a role not suited to her talents.
Second issue, an overall impression of stage movement—dancing and fight moves in particular—that seemed under-rehearsed and stiff (and in the case of fight moves, too slow by half). Taken altogether, it lacked the organic feel reached when movements have been fully absorbed by the performers. The ensemble, whose members include many college theatre students and recent grads, may be enthusiastic and talented, but their lack of experience showed, especially in calypso and gypsy dances where rhythms and fluidity are everything. Director/choreographer Penny Ayn Maas and fight choreographer Mitchell Stephens may simply have needed more time.
Sound and lighting do a smooth job—they’re credited to Jorge Guerra and Julie N. Simmons. Costume coordinator Shanna Gobin has assembled all the necessaries, from prison rags to bishop’s cape, with Cervantes’ own clothes (handsome doublet and leggings) living comfortably under his costume as Don Quixote. (Sanders does a terrific and physically convincing job of switching from the energetic younger playwright to the quaver-voiced but undaunted old man.) And though the rather generic set isn’t credited to a designer, the massive iron-rod gate that moves back and forth is impressive, as is the deep-indigo starscape used to express hopes and dreams that lie beyond the prison.
Lyric’s opening night crowd—which included children, teens, old folks and every age between—were loud and enthusiastic in their response to the show. Lyric Stage has a grand tradition behind them (this is the company’s 26th season), and even with bumps and hitches, they seem to be settling in to the equally grand old theatre they’ve decided to call home.