'La Mancha' well served in Westchester"

Published: Tuesday, April 12, 2016 By: Tom Holehan Source: Post- Chronicle

It takes some effort on my part to recommend any production of “Man of La Mancha.” The much-loved 1965 musical about the perils of Don Quixote has never been one I’ve found easy to embrace. So it is with some surprise that I can actually be rather enthusiastic about the current revival of Mitch Leigh and Dale Wasserman’s dated warhorse currently onstage at the Westchester Broadway Theatre.

Based on Miguel de Cervantes’ masterwork, “The Adventures of Don Quixote,” writer Dale Wasserman with Mitch Leigh (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics) transferred the story to a musical format making Cervantes a character who finds he is facing the Spanish Inquisition. While imprisoned he takes part in a mock trial in which he needs to defend his life to his fellow inmates or risk losing all his possessions. Cervantes then becomes Quixote in this play within a play and enlists the other prisoners to take part. The musical, with its heart cemented firmly on its sleeve and its naïve look at a complicated world, appealed to 1960s audiences who bought willingly into its unbridled optimism and high sentimentality. This is the “Impossible Dream” musical, remember, and there are few who still can’t help but tear up  when that stirring anthem is sung in full voice.

That full voice belongs to the commanding Paul Schoeffler at Westchester and if any production of “Man of La Mancha” is to succeed, you better have a solid leading man in the role of Cervantes. Schoeffler meets all the requirements in a role that still casts the formidable shadow of its original Cervantes, Richard Kiley. It’s a character prone to high melodrama and severe over-acting (believe me, I’ve seen my share!). But Schoeffler’s approach is more subtle, more truthful, and he brings not only authority but vulnerability and humanity to the part.

In supporting roles I do wish an actor would show me a Sancho Panza, Quixote’s manservant, who wasn’t such a cartoony idiot. Sadly, Gary Marachek continues in the long tradition of going for silly laughs and pushy theatrics playing the role. More successful is Michelle Dawson, earthy and touching as the much-abused Aldonza and Alan M-L Wager, funny and sympathetic as the Padre. The songs, under the musical direction of Patrick Hoagland, are all in good voice here and include Schoeffler’s lilting “Dulcinea” and powerful “Impossible Dream.” Dawson also ignites the proceedings with a forceful rendition of “It’s All the Same.”

The atmospheric setting and costuming by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case seem exactly right and Andrew Gmoser’s moody lighting is expressive throughout. Directed and choreographed by David Wasson, this artist has done about as fine a job as one could hope for (and more) with this heavy-handed but immensely popular musical relic.

Note: It’s interesting to recall that “Man of La Mancha” had its origins at Connecticut’s own Goodspeed Opera House in 1965 before transferring to New York.

“Man of La Mancha” continues at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, New York through May 1, 2016. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 914.592.2222 or visit: www.broadwaytheatre.com.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org