By Pat Robbenolt
Stunning is the only word to describe the production of Man of La Mancha, currently playing at the Cumberland County Playhouse. The feeling of being imprisoned, brought on by the Adventure Theater itself, propels the audience into the action in a remarkable way.
What unfolds before us is a story within a story. Sixteenth century poet, playwright, actor Miguel de Cervantes may well have been writing of his own experience. He tells of being arrested, along with his manservant, as part of the Spanish Inquisition. They are accused of presenting entertainment offensive to the Inquisition. Cast into a huge dungeon, the two are mocked and abused by their fellow prisoners. In order to save the precious manuscript Cervantes has brought with him, he stages (complete with costumes and make-up) the story of Don Quixote.
Jason Ross becomes the aging nobleman whose madness is an embarrassment to his family. Accompanied ever by his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, Greg Pendzick, Don Quixote duels windmills and defends his perfect lady, his Dulcinea. Lauren Marshall plays the downtrodden whore whose true name is Aldonza.
Director Britt Hancock, assistant director/choreographer Leila Nelson, and music director Ron Murphy took the idea of scenic designer John Fionte to set this version of the musical in the 1930s during the regime of Franco who led Spain into an alliance with Hitler. Costume, lighting and sound designers Rebel Mickelson, Emily Becher-McKeever and Ryan Haderlie, and chief scenic artist Julie Barnhardt worked together to bring the idea to a creative fruition. The story begins in the common room of a stone prison vault. Other scenes are in the wild imagination of Miguel de Cervantes, including Spain in the 16th century.
Jason Ross brings his superb voice with subtle innuendos of change as Don Quixote finds himself in a variety of hilarious or tragic circumstances. From the moment he and Greg Pendzick sing the glorious title song “Man of La Mancha” through the tragic ending with Daniel Black as the Padre, one is part of a gripping theatrical experience. We regular denizens of the Playhouse celebrate Jason Ross in a leading role.
The 24 cast members work together seamlessly. Lindy Pendzick becomes Antonia, one of the prisoners, dirty, crouched as though ready to spring.
Bob Cleeland is the frightening captain of the Inquisition. Quinn Cason doubles as the Governor and the Innkeeper. He and Black as the Padre, Lindy Pendzick and Kathryn Berman as the housekeeper, in a country church in La Mancha sing: “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” John Dobbratz as Dr. Carrasco adds his powerful voice as the words
change to “We’re Only Thinking of Him.”
Greg Pendzick, Sancho Panza, in the kitchen of the Inn, is ever devoted, ever searching, and a bit winsome as he sings “The Missive” and “I Really Like Him.” In the stable of the inn, Lauren Marshall as Aldonza asks “What Does He Want of Me?” She is a tough woman. Nobody touches her heart. She is suspicious that this man who calls her “His Dulcinea” wants only what other men want. Yet they sing of the “Little Bird, Little Bird” and she is moved. (As are we, the audience.)
The dance of the “Golden Helmet of Mambrino” is hilarious as Don Quixote, Sancho, Carol Irvin as the Barber, and those labeled the Muleteers join in song. Daniel Black in his role as the Padre offers wisely, with a gentle passion, “To Each His Dulcinea.”
Act Two begins as Don Quixote voices his regret that he has never been dubbed a knight. He is either the maddest wise man or the wisest mad man. If only every man could have his dream. Ross sings longingly of “The Impossible Dream.” He wants justice for all men and justice for all women. He hopes to add some measure of grace to the world. That is his “Impossible Dream.” He sings of it in a voice tender and caring promising he will continue his quest, no matter how far.
The Knighting ceremony is delightful as Don Quixote is dubbed “Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” Cason, Pendzick and Marshall bring him the joy of knighthood and a rare feeling to our lives.
High points of the experience for me included the scene in which the “horses”, played by Caitlin Schaub and DeAnna Etchinson, tenderly rest their heads in Marshall’s lap. The “Confrontation with the Knight of the Mirrors” is deeply moving as we, the audience, are all caught in the reflected light.
Throughout the play Adam Ignacio, Michael Ruff, Chaz Sanders, Trey Norrod, Austin Price, Cody Rutledge, Patty Payne, Anna Baker, Henry Brooks, and Skip Ritter each add their unique talents to a creative presentation.
Highlighting the whole of the production is the orchestra under the direction of Ron Murphy. Hidden from the view of the audience are Kathy Bowers, David Garrison, Greg Danner, Chet Hayes, Drew Robbins, Joe Brindisi, Wayne Robbins, and Tony Greco the fine musicians who make up the orchestra.
Written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, seeing Man of La Mancha as presented at the Cumberland County Playhouse is a rare treat. This is a “must see” production. Do call 484-5000 for your tickets. Encourage others to share a remarkable theatrical experience. Remember: Don Quixote is not dead as long as his “Impossible Dream” lives on.