The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is celebrating their 50th anniversary and Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte (having spent 22 years in that position) knew she wanted to produce Man of La Mancha as a dedication and thank you to the dreamers and theater people who have supported the company. As one of those 'crazy theater types', I applaud her for taking on this show that walks the line between reality and insanity - and what a wonderfully polished and unique production she has given us.
Man of La Mancha rides on the shoulders of the actor portraying Cervantes/Quixote and Monte has an excellent strong-shouldered leading man in William Michals. He is much more than the booming voice that can deliver "The Impossible Dream" or the beauty of "Dulcinea". He is an actor that transforms himself in front of the audience to that of a frail man teetering on the edge of sanity with an incredible ability to convey both comedy and pathos to lead his audience on a journey. The Broadway performer never goes too far in his portrayal and fills his performance with truth. I've seen numerous productions of this musical and have witnessed actors that range from performing it for themselves to always giving to their fellow ensemble. Michals falls in the latter category.
At this production, I took someone who had never experienced the show and I found it interesting to see it through fresh eyes. The concept musical is something that audiences were not as used to in 1965 when Man of La Mancha was first presented. A play within a play where the poet Cervantes awaits an inquisition with other prisoners and tells a story about Don Quixote in order to stop people from burning his manuscript. A ground breaking musical for its time that many absolutely love while others find much too sentimental or sometimes confusing. Playwright Drake Wasserman has said he was drawn to Miguel de Cervantes' story more than that of Cervantes' book "Don Quixote". Hence Man of La Mancha became a story within a story. Yet all the songs by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion were written for the Don Quixote portion of the play. This accounts for many audiences believing the musical is the 'Quixote Musical'. I've always wished Cervantes would have music to propel his story so that we could feel for that character as much as we are pulled into Quixote. But who am I to question the 5 time Tony Award winning Best Musical that ran almost 6 years the first time it appeared on Broadway? And director Monte and actor Michals have worked hard with this script to portray that Cervantes has a goal from the moment we see him. He must win over his other prisoners and in turn; the audience watching it.
It is wonderful to see this production in a small, intimate space. The piece lends itself to be shown in such a manner: with the story unfolding in the audiences' lap to make that human connection. The smaller pit (with prisoners playing many of the instruments) with musical direction by Doug Oberhamer enhances without ever overpowering. Monte has created an exciting environment for that audience with a scenic design by Michael Schweikardt that makes the audience feel as if they are part of the prison. Lightning design by Michael Giannitti that is unafraid to use shadows as well as light. Costume design by Michelle Eden Humphrey portrays the period beautifully and utilizes additional pieces thoughtfully to tell the play within the play. And sound design by Steven L. Beckel sets the tone the moment we hear footsteps approaching the iron door of the prison and the loud opening of that door.
Monte has made wonderful use of this 'prison playground' in the telling of her story along with fight director Rick Sordelet. Her placement choices of scenes such as Aldonza's abduction give wonderful impact without being too jarring in this intimate space. Her art of storytelling is evident in this the first musical the group has produced since 2004 and the way she has chosen to use the entire ensemble.
I mentioned Monte's unique production earlier in that she has made different casting choices in some of the roles. One of those is casting Jane Pfitsch as the service woman/prostitute Aldonza. With her cropped, dirty-blonde locks, Pfitsch does not match the stereotypical look of other actresses that have portrayed the role and at first, I'll admit I was thrown. Then I was pulled into this tough, earthy take on the character that looked different from the other women in the ensemble. It caused her to stand out both to the audience and to Quixote. Pfitsch's acting moments are so grounded that I found I was transfixed by her when she would enter. Powerful.