Audiences dreamed the impossible dream when “Man of La Mancha” opened in 1965. Despite his recent assassination, John F. Kennedy’s Camelot era still ruled both the national mood and the Broadway stage. The cynicism that accompanied a prolonged war and battles for civil and other rights would not set in for a couple of years yet. Memory of political repression during the post-World War II era was keen, however, so a musical about Miguel de Cervantes, aka Don Quixote, a cockeyed idealist set against the Spanish Inquisition resonated strongly and was widely cheered.
That era came and went quickly and may never be recaptured. As a result, the enthusiasm that greeted the debut of “Man of La Mancha” is unlikely to follow subsequent productions.
Cygnet Theatre’s competent and faithful revival is a case in point. Artistic Director Sean Murray does double duty as director and star. As director, he moves the cast efficiently and paces the production well, but he brings little new insight to the text. As star, he dominates the proceedings, sometimes in a good way, other times in a way that overwhelms other performances. It’s a monumental performance that sticks out in a show where the ensemble work is a lot trickier than one might think.
The secondary roles reveal how any production of this show does or doesn’t work. Most difficult of all is the role of Aldonza (Erika Beth Phillips). The role was written for Joan Diener, its originator, and it requires a performer who can move well, sing difficulty passages with ease, and draw a characterization whose arc goes from being a tough prostitute to accepting Don Quioxote’s characterization of her as his Dulcinea. Aldonza is also a dramatic soprano, a voice type uncommon even in opera. Ms. Phillips has the requisite acting chops, and she delivers strongly in that area. Her singing voice is not naturally suited for the part, but she gamely provides a fairly close approximation of the style.
The other difficult role is that of Sancho Panza. The character is the most underwritten in the show, and he also has to charm the audience with songs that play more as filler than anything else. Bryan Barbarin is a charming performer, and he does keep you from looking at your watch during the filler numbers. Unfortunately, the role is written for a tenor, and Mr. Barbarin is a baritone. Some of the high notes were too much for his voice at the performance I saw.
The featured roles are well cast and performed. In particular, Kürt Norby looks angelic and sings beautifully as the Padre, David Kirk Grant makes kindness work to his advantage as the Innkeeper, Katie Whalley leads Colleen Kollar Smith’s choreography with verve, and Justin Warren Martin contributes a nice turn as the barber.
Sean Fanning’s set manages to include the necessary elements of a dingy (lighting by Michelle Caron) and ugly prison (including a pull-down staircase whose use is always ominous). Both did better work for the Diversionary production of “Harmony, Kansas,” however. Jeanne Reith was also busy doing costumes for “Joe vs. the Volcano” as well this this production; she nevertheless managed to provide strikingly appropriate designs for each show. Shane Simmons led an 8-piece orchestra that included some on-stage guitar work (thank goodness that Cygnet’s experiment with recorded accompaniment seems to have come to an end).
If you’ve never seen a production of “Man of La Mancha,” Cygnet’s will give you a fair idea of what all the fuss was about. If you’ve seen the original or any of the Broadway revivals, though, this one won’t give you much that is different to enjoy. Performances continue through August 26.
Directed by Sean Murray, with Shane Simmons (Music Director), Colleen Kollar Smith (Choreographer), Sean Fanning (Set Designer), Michelle Caron (Lighting Designer), Ross Goldman (Sound Designer), Matt Lescault-Wood (Sound Designer), Peter Herman (Wig & Makeup Designer), Jeanne Reith° (Costume Designer), and Angelica Ynfante (Scenic Artist/Properties).
The cast includes: Bryan Banville (Muleteer), Bryan Barbarin (Sancho Panza), Lucas Coleman (Muleteer), Christian Daly (Pedro/Captain), David Kirk Grant (Governor/Innkeeper), Linda Libby (Housekeeper’s Wife/Innkeeper’s Wife), Jason Maddy (Duke/Dr. Carrasco), Justin Warren Martin (Muleteer/Barber), Sean Murray (Cervantes/Don Quixote), Kürt Norby (Padre), Erika Beth Phillips (Aldonza/Dulcinea), Nathan Riley (Muleteer), and Katie Whalley (Antonia).
Performances July 5 – August 17, 2012 at Cygnet’s Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego, CA 92110. Wednesdays & Thursdays – 7:30pm, Fridays – 8pm, Saturdays – 3pm & 8pm, Sundays – 2pm & 7pm. Tickets ($34-$59) by phone: 619-337-1525, or online: www.cygnettheatre.com