'Man of La Mancha in Ojai' something exceptional
Word of mouth strong for ‘La Mancha’
Once in a while, the stars align as theater lights dim and almost immediately the audience knows it’s witnessing something exceptional.
That’s the case with Ojai Performing Arts Theater’s “Man of La Mancha,” where everyone called upon to sing raises the quality of the production, actors can really act, and every element down to details of the characters, set, costumes and musical presentation is so close to flawless that you hope that performances through Oct. 7 will have houses as full as when we saw it.
It takes a theatrical village to put it all together, and Ojai has it, with many of the participants living in or frequenting the area. Among those involved are executive producer Joan Kemper, producer Stuart Crowner, artistic director Richard Camp, director Marty Babayco and musical director Andy Street. The same high quality extends through the rest of the production staff and, particularly, among the cast, many of whom play multiple roles.
In Ojai’s staging of the musical play by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the songs flow organically from the busy stage. The audience immediately recognizes from the first note sung by Scott White as Cervantes/Quixote that his voice will enhance the show’s memorable songs, including “The Impossible Dream” and “Dulcinea.”
White makes a lightning-swift transformation from Cervantes, who wrote about Don Quixote, to become the man with the impossible dreams. A bit of glue secures his bushy brows and pointed beard and he’s Quixote, the Man of La Mancha with a vision of the world as it should be, rather than it unfortunately often proves to be.
Quixote is accompanied by his faithful aide, Sancho Panza, played by Adam Womack with just the right touch of innocent fealty to a man whose horizon may not be realistic but is certainly one that would brighten the world. When Inquisition forces throw them into prison to await likely death, they find themselves surrounded by lots of other prisoners with less lofty dreams.
Among them is the not so pure woman of the world Aldonza, immediately renamed Dulcinea by Quixote, whose vision of her is one of sweetness and charm. Laura Dekkers ably balances the tawdry side of the woman with the deep-down softness Quixote sees in her.
There is scarcely anyone in the show who doesn’t rivet attention by being very good, very evil or alternates of both. Some of the most charming occur early in the show when Kirsten Hoj and Beverley Sharpe appear as Quixote’s and Sancho Panza’s horses. The effect is produced by their very cleverly constructed “horse-heads” along with their graceful ability to step and act like steeds.
The production captures the essence of Don Quixote’s innocent faith in humanity while never forgetting the evil forces determined to destroy it. “Man of La Mancha” captivatingly suggests that as long as the world still gives birth to people with the soul of a Quixote, there is hope for mankind.
“Man of La Mancha,” now playing at Ojai Art Center Theater, tells the story-within- a-story of “one man scorned and covered with scars (who) still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the un- reachable stars; and the world was better for this.”
It is a thought-provoking tale that comprises tragedy and comedy, romance and pathos, and asks of us a question that feels all-too-contemporary: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?”
In this reimagining of the Don Quixote classic, Miguel de Cervantes, is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition but must face an additional court. He must also satisfy the demands of — his fellow prisoners who have seized the manuscript of his famous novel and have accused him of being “an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man.”
He begins to tell them the tale of a delusional old grey- beard named Alonso Quijana. Quijana believes himself to be Don Quixote, a knight errant who roams La Mancha with his sidekick “squire,” Sancho Panza, righting great wrongs in an age of many evils. In this, he recruits both himself and the other prisoners to play the parts in his tale-within-a-tale. The actor playing Cervantes is therefore called upon to portray Quijana, and Quijana’s alter-ego, Don Quixote. This is a formidable undertaking requiring sharp shifts in mood and style to effectively delineate for the audience the moves back and forth from one layer of the story to another. It was pure delight therefore to see Scott White in the role, man- age these shifts with such assurance and skill, under the adroit direction of Marty Babayco.
Cervantes’ tale begins and we learn that Quiana’s nearest and dearest are fearful of the taint of being associated with a madman but insist that he must be found and cured lest he gets himself killed before consolidating his will.
The song “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” sung with great piety by Quiana’s niece (Brittany Danyel), housekeeper (Denise Heller) and the Padre (Armando Hernandez), is one of the comic highlights of the play.
Another narrative layer down, we enter Don Quixote’s fantastical world where windmills are mistaken for monsters, swords are less-than-heroically mangled, horses have opinions and the born- in-a-ditch, much-abused kitchen maid, Aldonza, is a pure and fine unbesmirched lady with whom the Don falls immediately in love and calls Dulcinea.
Laura Dekkers as the hard-bitten Aldonza, puzzled by why this madman idolizes her, projects a genuinely affecting portrait of an abused, cynical woman who is nevertheless ultimately vulnerable to Don Quixote’s insistence on seeing only the good and noble in the world. Her disgust is palpable in the song “It’s All the Same,” bitterly condemning her tormentors, the rough muleteers.
Louis Graham is the conflicted but kindly inn keeper who indulges Don Quixote’s delusions and dubs him the “Knight of Woeful Countenance.” Alexander Schottky pulls sterling triple-duty as Quiana’s doctor, The Duke and The Knight of the Mirrors.
Adam Womack truly shines as the good-natured “wise fool” Sancho Panza, providing many of the best comic moments in the play.
Byron Hays is menacing as the crude and violent leader of the brutish muleteers who torment and mercilessly abuse Aldonza.
Beverley Sharpe and Kirsten Hoj are the beguiling Moors who rob the Don and Sancho, making a mockery of their guileless trust.
White’s and Dekkers’ voices are two of the big stars of the show but the catchy, classic songs are delivered con gusto by the whole lively cast in this rousing and absorbing production of “Man of La Mancha,” co-produced with Ojai ACT by Joan Kemper and Stuart Crowner of Ojai Performing Arts Theater.
Vocal director Jaye Hersh has a wealth of singing talent to work with and the live musical accompaniment adds freshness and spontaneity to the whole play.
The cleverly designed set, complete with movable steps that merge the upper and lower stages, makes the best use of the space, adapting convincingly from medieval prison cell to seedy inn; and from the plain on which Don Quixote tilts at windmills to a deathbed chamber.
“Man of La Mancha” is a testament to the power of story in our lives, the beauty of a fiction and how that fiction can elevate the harsh facts of life to a higher, truer, more comprehensive reality with purpose and nobility, where “Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”
Word-of-mouth recommendation is strong for this this play and, according to the website, several upcoming shows are already sold out, so patrons are advised to book ahead for the next four weekends.