Man of La Mancha at Westport Playhouse

 “Welcome to Katz Reviews. This is Ed Katz of Katnip Marketing- marketing consultant by day; theater and film critic by night- bringing my weekly review segment, Katz Reviews, here for you on WICC 600.

It really helps a regional theater-  in this case, Westport Country Playhouse- when they select a work that already has great bones. Brilliantly constructed by playwright Dale Wasserman, ‘Man of La Mancha’ has REALLY great bones. It is perhaps the most produced musical in history- for very good reasons. The story’s terrific, with many nuances which have become even more relevant and powerful given today’s current events, including the Me Too movement. And those songs! ‘Dulcinea’ and, of course, ‘The Impossible Dream,’ to name just two, are both timeless classics!

center: Philip Hernandez as Don Quixote

Then the trick for the regional theater is to cast and direct it well. Kudos to Westport Playhouse! For the second show in a row, they nailed it! Broadway actor Philip Hernandez gives the performance of the year as Don Quixote and Mark Lamos’ direction is superb. Andrew David Sotomayor’s music direction is quite good and Wilson Chin’s set design is excellent.

I can’t recall the last time a set of stairs was used to such powerful effect as it was here. When the stairs are lowered down into the dungeon, where the prisoners are, it has the effect of a guillotine coming down in slow motion.

Back to Philip Hernandez, who plays Don Quixote- and Cervantes. If you are not familiar with the original story by Miguel Cervantes, it has autobiographical elements to it. Written in the early 1600’s- the time of the Spanish Inquisition- when Cervantes was already in his 50’s, it tells the story of a man- about his age and with his name who also happens to be a poet, writer and dreamer- who is imprisoned for a minor offense and is suddenly facing the very real possibility of a death sentence due to the extreme intolerance of those in power.

Cervantes’ fantasy version of himself is as Don Quixote, a hero knight who wants to fight all the injustice in the world. When Cervantes is asked why he envisions himself in this unrealistic fantasy world he replies he sees the world not as it is but as it ought to be. Because the way it really is is just too brutal. So is he really crazy?

center: Gisela Adisa as Aldonza

A great example is when he falls for a whore named Aldonza (played by Gisela Adisa, in a powerful performance), Cervantes calls her Dulcinea, and imagines her a virtuous virgin. This is consistent with his overly optimistic view of seeing the best in everyone.

Cervantes gets swept up by the Inquisition and captured with his faithful friend/servant named Sancho, played by Tony Manna- who overcomes what could be the one weak aspect to the story when Aldonza asks him why he follows the crazy dreamer everywhere. And his simple answer is his song, ‘I Really Like Him.’

l to r: Tony Manna, Philip Hernandez, Gisela Adisa

And that is his reason; Sancho is a simple man and may not realize it himself but it’s clear to the audience that he is inspired by him and that’s what gives Sancho meaning in his life. Some, like Cervantes, follow the dream while others, like Sancho- and then Aldonza/Dulcinea- follow the dreamer. The story shows Cervantes and Sancho in prison telling the other prisoners his story- or his story as he wants to tell it- while they play judge and jury to him.

This production isn’t flawless because an actor here or there overacts a bit or may not be note perfect with their singing, but it’s really close. And, more than that, it convinces you that reaching for that unreachable star- in spite of all that is against you- is indeed worthwhile and I give ‘Man of La Mancha’ 5 stars out of 5.

Don’t miss this exceptional revival of one of the all-time great musicals. This is Westport Country Playhouse’s triumph! ‘Man of La Mancha’ runs at Westport Playhouse through October 14th. For info visit Westport Playhouse dot org.

Catch my reviews right here this time each week and on my Facebook page and website, Katz Reviews dot com, where you will find all my WICC 600 reviews. This is Ed Katz talking theater for WICC 600!