“Man of La Mancha” – Arizona Theatre Company

Theater Review – January 8, 2018


Arizona Theatre Company, Center Stage, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

The 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha” is based on playwright Miguel de Cervantes life philosophy that has evolved into a clichéd show done to death by every community theater.  The simple show requires one unit set, a prison, where Cervantes, as a late-in-life convict, is imprisoned for his errant life that becomes a tale woven around his lead character, Don Quixote.  The show also triumphed because of its pleasing but well known Mitch Leigh score.  So why would Arizona’s only fully professional theater, Arizona Theatre Company (ATC), build its 51st season on this show?

The reason is simple.  ATC has re-thought the hackneyed musical bringing remarkable vibrancy to its well worn songs and familiar story and then they staged it with masterful directorial and choreographic style that exploits dynamic ways of relating the show to contemporary audiences.  The show has been shifted from its customary late 16th century period to the 1960s during Franco’s corrupt Spanish rule.  This transition relates the historic tale to the bizarre things plaguing current history.

So, instead of watching a tired re-creation of “Man of La Mancha,” you are riveted to the stage waiting to see how director David Bennett and choreographer Kathryn Van Meter’s updated take on the show, its familiar melodies, and its story move it to a more relevant place.  A fabulous cast acts, sings, and dances the tale as if it were a fresh Broadway hit.  This stellar recommendation comes from a person who saw the original Albert Marre production with leads Richard Kiley, Joan Diener, Irving Jacobson, Ray Middleton, and Robert Rounseville.  In many ways, this new staging betters the original.

Philip Hernandez’s brilliant Don Quixote doesn’t push the part and his soulful rendition of the show’s signature song, “The Impossible Dream,” stops the show as it should.  He plays the character with great passion as he carefully maneuvers Don Quixote into the stellar production concept.  Michelle Dawson’s slutty Aldonza captures the tart’s role but subtly suggests the character’s sentimental side.  Carlos Lopez crafts a relaxed but sincere Sancho who is loyal to his master as he fiercely defends Cervantes’ erratic behavior. The ensemble creates the other characters with clear distinctions.  The orchestral accompaniment comes from the acting ensemble.  The barren prison set serves as a simple background on which the many sequences take place while the slovenly costumes give audiences clues about each character.

ATC’s masterful “Man of La Mancha” gives local theatergoers the perfect New Year’s gift.  It continues through January 28 at the Herberger Theater Center.  For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: A

A disturbing phenomenon has taken hold at ATC.  The company’s new artistic director, David Ivers, and the managing director, Billy Russo, have started each production this season with a far too lengthy appeal for funds.  Everyone understands the need to request community money but the “Chatty Cathy” talks delay each show and it is the shows that best sells the fund-raising appeal.  The talks bore audiences who have already bought tickets.  Why not take Phoenix Theatre’s lead and use a short, nicely phrased pre-curtain recorded reminder about giving.  ATC’s rambling and long-winded requests are more likely to hurt fund-raising efforts rather than helping.  Think about it.