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Man of La Mancha — Act II Playhouse

14047622821_4fec71abfbFrom the time Christopher Colucci comes down Act II Playhouse’s house left aisle fingering on a lone guitar the familiar chords and rhythms that signal the overture of “Man of La Mancha,” you know you are in for a more intimate, more creative production of the popular Dale Wasserman-Joe Darion-Mitch Lee musical than is usually mounted.

Colucci is quickly joined by a woman wailing plaintively in Spanish while her fellow cast members from Aaron Cromie’s exhilarating staging for Act II take up their instruments — a guitar, a mandolin, an accordion ,a violin, a cello, and various percussion pieces from drums to tambourines to bean shakers — and bring Leigh’s thrumming mock-Iberian tones to full, exciting throttle. Colucci’s economical arrangements often call for the most basic instrumentation, and Cromie’s “Man of La Mancha” maintains its musical drive the same way it keeps up its dramatic energy, by depending on the elements of theater and giving its troupe ample opportunities to show their wide range of talents.

Theater is the key to Cromie’s production. His Act II cast is as versatile and as enthusiastic to entertain as the inmates of the Inquisition’s holding pen where Spain’s most august classical writer, Miguel Cervantes, wins respect and preserves a prize possession by directing his dubious, then eager fellow prisoners in an improvised enactment of his epic work, “Don Quixote.” Cervantes must make willing and able actors of his motley cellmates, and he molds them just as Cromie molds his cast, by letting them have fun as they portray the various characters that appear in Cervantes’s story about a country squire who in his dotage envisions himself a knight errant on quest to right the unrightable wrong and reach the unreachable star.

Cervantes, of necessity, makes theater. In the context of “Man of La Mancha,” it’s a matter of life or death for him. Cromie makes theater by design. He plans carefully to make everything look improvised, makeshift, and natural. To his credit, and with the great help of his cast, Colucci, and set designer, Maura Roche, he succeeds in making all appear as if it was thought up on the spot while also bringing into being a tender, perfectly paced, engaging show that elicits the romance and comedy inherent in Dale Wasserman’s script without overdoing them or making them seem simplistic or clichéd. He captures the humanity and grandeur that make “Don Quixote” an enduring literary landmark while revealing the heart and empathy that make “Man of La Mancha” an ongoing favorite.

In the 50 years since it first moved from Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House to off-Broadway and, finally, to Broadway, “Man of La Mancha” has become a bit of a warhorse. Most productions closely follow Albert Marre’s original staging and take for granted that audiences know the “Don Quixote” story well enough to be charmed by it whether a production makes the most of Wasserman’s material or not. The Darion and Leigh score has a lot of high, dramatic moments such as “The Impossible Dream,” the title song, “I am I, Don Quixote,” and “Aldonza.” It also has some heartfelt numbers such as “Dulcinea” and “What Does He Want of Me?,” but it also has several songs that can be tossed off in Leigh’s incessant three-beat rhythm and one or two that have done so often, even outside the show, that they aren’t done for meaning. To be plainer, productions of “Man of La Mancha” often suffer from familiarity breeding worse than contempt in the form of underdone, underemphasized performances that rely more on an audience being in love with the show than with the quality of entertainment being offered them.

Aaron Cromie falls into none of the traps a warhorse like “Man of La Mancha” can set for a director. His production stresses the sincerity of the Cervantes’s characters and the Inquisition captives who portray them. His staging integrates Darion and Leigh’s music beautifully and makes the most of even the most innocuous number. His mounting highlights the humanity in Alonso Quijana, addled into believing he is the knight, Don Quixote, and of Aldonza, the scullery maid ennobled by Quixote’s adulation. His precise direction makes use of theatrical and improvisational devices that add to the wit and charm of the show and keep it touchingly real even though we know it is an enacted fantasy. His use of Roche’s set and the various props strewn handily around it animates “Man of La Mancha” and makes it immediate and moving. His asking actors to be the band, a trend in today’s theater and an epidemic in Philadelphia, given the cast members who toodle flutes, pick guitars, and bat out saxophone riffs in “This Is the Week That Is,” “Oedipussy,” and “Gint,” is inspired considering the improvisational tone of his staging. His use of puppets is particularly clever. His ability to set moods and go from a sequence that prepares the stage for a scene to one that breaks your heart or makes you quake with laughter is uncanny. Cromie makes a complete and thorough job of bringing out the best in “Man of La Mancha,” and in his creative hands, the show plays as little like a warhorse as any show can. On the contrary, Cromie worked the miracle of making Act II’s “Man of La Mancha” seem fresh and new.

“Man of La Mancha” begins on an ominous note. Usually, the unraveling of a large chain is heard, and a staircase comes down as a conduit by which Miguel Cervantes enter the Inquisition’s prison. Cromie, not having the space or the flies at Act II to lower a staircase makes Cervantes’s entrance even creepier by using Mark Valenzuela’s sound effect of a chain unwinding and heavy door flinging open to freeze the activity of the inmates already in the holding cell and having them slowly come back to life in curiosity as Cervantes and his servant make their way down the house right aisle, the prison captain’s voice barking directions, again thanks to Valenzuela. The effect is right. It shows the fear even the most cutthroat of criminals has for the Inquisition and the rude reception these same inmates have in store for a newcomer to their midst, especially one who claims to be a gentleman and whose offense includes being a poet.

With a spellbinder’s aplomb, Cervantes inveigles his cellmates to let him plead his case in their kangaroo court in the hope of sparing his life and the treasured manuscript of his latest and most complex work. The inmate leader, called The Governor, agrees against some opposition, to allow Cervantes to earn his acceptance among the prisoners by showing them one of his stories. They become his cast as he stages “Don Quixote,” and both “Man of La Mancha” and Cromie show their mettle in bringing the 16th century classic to vibrant life.

So much is appealing in Cromie’s staging. Sonny Leo, playing Quixote’s servant, Sancho Panza, whispers to the prisoners playing his and his master’s donkeys how to bend their knees and bob to make it look to the others as if Quixote and Sancho are riding. The effect when the riding scene comes to fruition is enchanting. The Governor becomes the Innkeeper at the alleged castle where Quixote stops to beg the boon of being dubbed a knight, and Brian Anthony Wilson turns the castellan’s part into a major triumph of amused and tolerant humanity. When Quixote’s dubbing takes place, Wilson has a great sequence in which he repeatedly strikes up the band for musical emphasis, always to be interrupted by a new request from Quixote. Amanda Jill Robinson scrunches up her face when told the innkeeper’s wife is opposed to giving Quixote and Sancho shelter and plays a ripe nasty termagant thereafter. The prisoner played by Jake Blouch takes his role as a padre in Quixote’s story quite seriously while another inmate, played by Matt Tallman, is determined to see Cervantes found guilty and works constantly towards that end. The balance and clarity with which all of this takes place gives Cromie’s production additional charisma. You admire the various nuances of the actors while wanting, like them, to hear more of Cervantes’s tale.

The quality and general pitch of the singing voices may be the only cavil I have with Act II’s “Man of La Mancha.” Shrewd characterization and sincerity more than make up for any lapses of tone of failure to hit an elusory, and possibly unreachable, note. Jake Blouch, Josh Totora, Matthew Mastronardi, and Amanda Jill Robinson are the most reliable singers, and all make their songs count dramatically and emotionally. Peter Schmitz, as Quixote, and Maria Konstantinidis, as Aldonza, might lose track of a key or sing above their optimum range in their numbers, but that matters little compared to the reality and effectiveness with which they endow their songs. Schmitz rivets with his most important numbers — “Dulcinea,” “The Impossible Dream,” and “Man of La Mancha,” while Konstantinidis makes you understand the confusion and revulsion of Aldonza in “What Does He Want of Me?” and “Aldonza.” Totora, Mastronardi, and company contribute lovely harmonies to tunes like “Little Bird,” Blouch does a fine job with “To Each His Dulcinea,” and Robinson makes a treat out of anything she sings, even when she warbles while having a violin that she’s actively playing, under her chin.

Acting and its authenticity is the hallmark of Act II’s “La Mancha.” To a person, performances are superb and convey more than is required because the cast is so adept at building texture and providing intensity.

Peter Schmitz commands the Act II stage as well as Cervantes compels his fellow prisoners to listen to him. Schmitz shows Alonso Quijana’s sweetness and dignity coming through Don Quixote’s delusions. He can speak with the certainty and inspiration of a madman, eyes wide and gleaming, while making you want Quixote to win his battles and prove his sanity, especially to his soon-to-be nephew by marriage, Dr. Carasco, played with frightening earnestness by Tallman.

Schmitz is particularly effective in his quieter scenes, for instance during his praising of Aldonza/Dulcinea, and during Quijana’s death scenes. Most importantly, he makes you like, root for, and feel for Quixote. Like the innkeeper, we will excuse the old man’s madness because Schmitz makes its so alluringly noble and convinces you that Quixote’s ideals are worth establishing, fighting for, and preserving.

Maria Konstantinidis can murder with her eyes. She is wonderful at giving the muleteers who frequent the inn and ravage her Aldonza cold stares while greeting Quijana/Quixote with bemused looks. Konstantinidis’s Aldonza is a woman who has seen and heard it all. She is sharper and stronger than the men who taunt her. She has an unromantic perspective on her life and will not brook nonsense from any source, including Quixote.
Konstantinidis conveys Aldonza’s internal anger and her impatience with the swinelike men around her. She is willing to have sex but expects men to pay for it. The confusion Konstantinidis affects when confronted with Quixote’s chivalry is deftly played, as is the plain honesty in her visit to the dying Quijana.

Konstantinidis can make anger humorous or terrifying. She does well with Aldonza’s songs, particularly the anthem that bears the character’s name, and shows Aldonza’s thought process as she considers what it would be like to be a knight’s Dulcinea.

Brian Anthony Wilson is entertaining as both the jaded Governor, the inmate who rules the prison, and the tolerant innkeeper who finds Don Quixote puzzling but amusing.

Jake Blouch shows a lot of gravitas as the padre. His prison character takes his play character seriously, and that leads to several strong scenes in which Blouch’s characters interact with Quixote and Quijana.

Matt Tallman is solid in his role as the man who will be reasonable in the face of all among him who prefer to be romantic or lenient. Tallman is effective as both Carasco and the prisoner who wants to see Cervantes and his manuscript burned by the Inquisition.

Amanda Jill Robinson, in addition to her musical and vocal gifts, is funny as she goes from the mean and always agitated innkeeper’s wife to Quijana’s concerned niece, Antonia.

Sonny Leo enjoys delivering some of Pancho’s more critical or ironic lines, such as “Whether the pitchers hits the stone, or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s going to be bad, for the future.

Leo is an actor who goes about his business cheerfully, and his good humor and congeniality are contagious.

Christopher Colucci is stalwart in working solo on his guitar or leading a full ensemble. Without a piano to back him, he provides strong rhythmic support to the cast and makes Act II’s “Man of La Mancha” a musical treat in addition to being one great and enjoyable entertainment.

Aaron Cromie’s work with “Man of La Mancha” is a true theatrical achievement. He breathes vibrant life into a 50-year-old show and makes it seem hot from the writers’ pens. Cromie trusts in theater and his actors’ ability to be forthright in performance without being hammy or overbaked. Given his work with Jean Giraudoux’s “Ondine” for Idiopathic Ridiculosity earlier this season, Cromie has to be the most creative director in our midst.

Maura Roche’s set was particularly appealing and versatile. It looks to be a deep blue until James Leitner’s lighting turned the Inquisition prison into a dull, depressing gray. Alisa Sickora Kleckner did her usual fine job with costumes, especially the pieces she assembled for Quixote’s armor.

“Man of La Mancha” runs through Sunday, June 8 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $39 to $28 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or going online to http://www.act2.org.

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