by Clark Groome
Over the years I’ve seen four productions of “Man of La Mancha.” While each had its assets, for the most part I found the show to be heavy handed and, in the worse case, ponderous. For all its popularity, Dale Wasserman’s book bored me. The Mitch Leigh score, with Joe Darion’s lyrics, on the other hand, has always been appealing.
Another problem with all those productions was that they had taken a show specifically designed to be played without an intermission and added a break – either to sell candy or out of fear that audience members might not be able to refrain from the rest room for an hour and three quarters.
It was with that background that I approached the Act II Playhouse’s chamber production of “La Mancha,” which will run through June 8. Finally, I’m happy to report, the show made sense, and the production, while seriously flawed, was energetic, entertaining and often quite moving.
As with some highly-touted Broadway productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” the Act II’s “La Mancha” has a cast that also serves as the orchestra for the show. While not the orchestra you’d hear on the original cast CD, the conceit works well. Actors double in roles that are significant to the story of Miguel de Cervantes’ imprisonment at the time of the Spanish Inquisition while also playing musical instruments to accompany the singers.
Cervantes, to pass the time and convince his prison mates that he is innocent of the charges they bring in a mock trial that would cause him to turn over all his worldly possessions, tells a story as the core of his defense.
From that point forward, we see Cervantes as Don Quixote, the Knight of the Woeful Countenance who falls in love with an Innkeeper’s resident whore whom Quixote calls Dulcinea.
Unlike many of my encounters with the show before, we weren’t beaten over the head by the story. In Ambler the story unfolds more naturally, with both humor and pathos.
Aaron Cromie’s production is creative and captures the show’s essence more handsomely than I had ever experienced. The actors all do well in that capacity. Peter Schmitz is a terrific Cervantes/Quixote; Sonny Leo a delightful Sancho Panza, Quixote’s manservant; and Maria Konstantinidis a believable Aldonza/Dulcinea.
Where the show breaks down — and it may be because of the notoriously brief rehearsal schedule that non-profit regional theaters face — is with the music. Most of the instrumentalists do fine, although the violinist was almost always out of tune.
So, alas, were the singers, particularly when singing together. Schmitz and Leo were fine. Konstantinidis was somewhat screechy at times. The ensemble numbers fluctuated from being sound harmonically to being somewhat painful.
Yet as big a flaw as that is, the Act II “Man of La Mancha,” performed as written without an intermission, is impressive in so many ways that I can only hope the group singing will improve as the run continues.
For tickets, call 215-654-0200 or visit www.act2.org.