Reviewed by George Basler
Certain Broadway musicals, even hits, are pretty much forgotten after their initial runs while others become enduring works that reach audiences across generations.
Man of La Mancha fits into the latter category. The original 1965 Broadway production ran for 2,328 performances and won the Tony Award for best musical. Since then, it’s been revived four times on Broadway and has toured all over the world in professional and community venues.
A production that opened Thursday (Sept. 23) and will run through Sunday(Sept, 26) at the Endicott Performing Arts Center gives a good indication why the work has an enduring appeal. The 20-member cast does a good, workmanlike job conveying the stirring idealism and poignancy of the classic musical.
Directed by Pat Foti, the production is a joint effort of EPAC and Theatre Street Productions. It features three top-notch performances by Brad Morgan, Andrea Gregori, and Scott Newman in the lead roles and solid jobs by performers in the secondary roles and the ensemble.
Man of La Mancha tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes, the famous novelist, who has been imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition for placing a tax lien on a monastery. His dungeon mates put him on trial and promise he will be found guilty and his possessions seized. To save his skin, Cervantes enlists the prisoners in telling the story of a country squire who through delusion or “madness” becomes the knight errant Don Quixote.
The musical’s theme of spiritual idealism facing off against harsh realities was relevant to the idealism of the early 1960s and the counterculture sentiment of the late 1960s.
Time has moved on since then, of course. The counterculture has gone the way of love beads and tie-dye T-shirts. But Man of La Mancha’s homage to spiritual idealism still touches a chord. Credit goes to Dale Wasserman’s story that skillfully balances the show’s lofty theme without descending into gooey sentimentality
Man of La Mancha isn’t afraid to look at the seamier sides of life. Some of the characters are a scurvy lot, and there is a brutal sexual assault. The contrast of darkness and light is what makes the show a compelling one.
At the same time, Man of La Mancha is blessed with a top-grade score with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion.
Leading the list of songs, of course, is “The Impossible Dream,” which has become a standard. What can be overlooked, though, is the score’s diversity. It features emotional ballads (“Dulcinea” and “What Does He Want of Me”), satirical pieces (“We’re Only Thinking of Him”) and comic tunes (“I Really Like Him”).
The EPAC cast does a first-rate job putting them across.
Having to play Cervantes and the “mad” squire character is a tall task that Morgan meets head-on with great skill. His booming baritone makes “The Impossible Dream” feel fresh. This is no small accomplishment because the song has been performed ad nauseam by seemingly every baritone in the Western World.
Morgan has a commanding presence as Quixote. He also conveys the angry idealism of Cervantes. This is especially true in a monologue in the second act in which Cervantes explains why he created the Quixote character as an antidote to the horrors he has seen throughout his life.
Gregori brings a fiery personality and strong voice to the role of Aldonza, an embittered kitchen maid whom the squire pictures as his lady love, Dulcinea. She makes the character’s anger, contempt and deep pain frighteningly real. She also skillfully plays Aldonza’s transition at the end of the play, making it deeply moving.
As Quixote’s manservant, Sancho Panza, Scott Newman makes a fine comic foil. His bemused loyalty to the squire is both funny and touching, and his singing voice remains true to the comic songs.
Man of La Mancha’s message may seem quaint in an era when idealism is taking a beating and cynicism is the rule. But its message that idealism can be transformative despite pain, disappointment and heartbreak is one we’d all like to believe in, and that makes the musical a timeless one.
Man of La Mancha is a real crowd pleaser, and so is the EPAC production.
IF YOU GO: Man of La Mancha has two remaining performances — 8 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday — at the Endicott Performing Arts Center, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. For in-person ticket information or for information on accessing the live stream, visit www.endicottarts.com.