Play: “Man of La Mancha”
Group: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: Heagney Theater, Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood
Dates: August 18, 19, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $20-$30; contact 314-239-9040 or www.insighttheatrecompany.com
Story: Novelist Miguel de Cervantes, known for his masterpiece, “Don Quixote,” is an unsuccessful actor/writer and sometime tax collector who has made the bad decision to foreclose on a Spanish monastery in the late 16th century during the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Subsequently he is imprisoned and awaits trial before the Inquisition. His fellow prisoners berate him and threaten to take his few possessions, but he lobbies for a chance to defend himself in their mock trial.
Cervantes then assumes the role of Alonso Quijana, an aged gentleman whose addled brain leads him to believe that he is the noble knight Don Quixote de La Mancha. With his servant Sancho, Quixote embarks on a quest that leads him to an inn he describes as a castle, where he asks the proprietor to dub him with knighthood. At the same time, Quixote meets the fiery servant Aldonza, whom he sees as the beautiful lady Dulcinea and whom he vows to protect against surly muleteers, even as Quijana’s niece, priest and others seek to “protect” him from his own grand illusions.
Highlights: Inspired by Cervantes’ classic work, “Man of La Mancha,” with a book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, ran for 2,328 performances on Broadway from 1965 to 1971. Leigh’s soaring score and Darion’s intelligent lyrics beautifully complemented Wasserman’s moving script to convey the noble sentiments of Cervantes in a time of extreme political repression and persecution.
Director Edward Coffield’s engaging production for Insight Theatre is a showcase for venerable Joneal Joplin, a long-time local favorite whose resume includes more than 200 productions such as this season’s stoic Captain Smith aboard the “Titanic” at The Muny and last year’s wonderful performance as a professor battling dementia in “Painting Churches” at Insight Theatre. Cervantes/Quixote is a fitting role for the dean of area performers.
As Sancho and Aldonza, Christopher Hickey and Julie O’Neill each provides a delicious interpretation that brings depth and ballast to the production. Hickey is suitably deferential in the role of the loyal servant and keeps his performance within a carefully detailed range to underscore Sancho’s loyal core. O’Neill is powerful both in her strong delivery as well as demonstrating a rich voice on tunes such as “What Does He Want of Me” and “Aldonza.”
Other Info: Joplin is good in the title role, but doesn’t quite seem to convey the nobility inherent in the part. He’s been much better in several other roles throughout his illustrious career, and perhaps he’s unfairly compared to himself in this regard. The fight scene with the muleteers is especially problematic, as its cartoonish style simply looks awkward and unconvincing. Coffield may have chosen to present that scene in a different fashion to tone down its physical demands while still reflecting the scope of the drama. Additionally, Joplin’s styling of “The Impossible Dream” is satisfactory but not really memorable.
There are a number of good supporting performances, including Nate McClure and Troy Turnipseed as Quixote’s trusty steeds, with Turnipseed also solid as Pedro, the leader of the thuggish muleteers. Jordan Reinwald is fine as Carrasco, the physician embarrassed by the prospect of marrying into a family with a foolish uncle (Quijana). Laura Ernst, Conor Dagenfield and Elise La Barge are splendid as Quijana’s niece, priest and housekeeper, shining on the clever ballad, “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” with especially fine singing by the ladies.
Paul Balfe is entertaining as the barber and Doug Irwin is solid as the ruling “Governor” of the prisoners as well as the innkeeper. The large cast also features the efforts of Jenni Ryan, Christina Rios, Billy Bommarito, Greg Cuellar, Mark Holzum, Christina Ramirez, Amanda Jerry and Destiny Hooper.
Caitlyn Ayers’ set design suitably conveys the drab dungeon in which the action takes place, with complementary costuming by Laura Hanson, lighting by Kaitlyn Breen and choreography by Michael Baxter, highlighted by those noble horses. Ross Bell’s musical direction is highly effective in conveying the grand scope of Leigh’s score.
“Man of La Mancha” is one of the truly great musicals of the 20th century. While not among Joplin’s best efforts, it’s still a treat to see him portray one of the great characters in American musical history.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.