Theater Review: The BSC’s “Man of La Mancha” — A Marvelously Robust Revival

If you revel in witty lyrics and soaring melodies as I do, you will love this Man of La Mancha.

Man of La Mancha Book by Dale Wasserman, Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Music direction by Darren R Cohen. At the Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA, through July 11.

L to R: Jeff McCarthy and Felicia Boswell. Photo: Kevin Sprague

L to R: Jeff McCarthy and Felicia Boswell in the Barrington Stage Company production of “Man of La Mancha.” Photo: Kevin Sprague.

By Helen Epstein

Does a corny old musical like Man of La Mancha hold up in 2015? I think it does.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Man of La Mancha and the 10th anniversary of Barrington Stage in downtown Pittsfield. Both are in robust health. BSC’s Artistic Director Julianne Boyd has assembled a choice team of actors and designers and revived a musical that is as alive and satisfying now as when I first saw it in 1965.

Inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century Don Quixote and the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, this revival is an intimate production that features impassioned acting and dancing rather than big voices. Boyd’s direction manages to deliver both the wit and high spirits of the story but also explores the roles of art and entertainment in the most dire of circumstances.

As I took in the dark set, a dungeon populated by a menacing collection of criminals circa 1605, I thought about its resonances outside the theater. The 50 years that have elapsed since the premiere of this musical have seen only an increase in the number of men and woman serving time in captivity; poets, artists, and idealists await sentencing around the world; gang rapes in and out of prisons; the rise of arts and writing programs, such as the theatrical experiment (enacting his story of Quixote with the help of fellow prisoners) that Cervantes proposes to establish his status and to pass the time in jail.

Boyd has managed to pull off a production that steers a sure course between comic and tragic. She deftly avoids the sentimental; this is a staging that is as quietly serious as it is tender. She has assembled an unusually good cast with no weak links. Each actor fully owns his or her character and brings a contemporary sensibility to their performances, either when singing such musical chestnuts as “To Dream the Impossible Dream” or delivering such chivalric lines as “I hope to add some measure of grace to the world.”

Foremost among the cast members is Jeff McCarthy, whose lean figure and charmingly erratic movements, along with his strong baritone, create a charismatic Cervantes/Don Quixote who holds the attention of prisoners and audience alike. Boyd’s direction brings out the character’s fragility as well as his ardor, as it does the complexity of the role of Aldonza/Dulcinea. Felicia Boswell, a small, sometimes child-like woman with a thin, breathy voice, is not an obvious choice for the scullery maid, but she is utterly convincing.

Jeff McCarthy and Tom Alan Robbins. Photo: Kevin Sprague

L to R: Jeff McCarthy and Tom Alan Robbins in the BSC production of “Man of La Manchua.” Photo: Kevin Sprague.

The BSC’s talented supporting cast includes Tom Alan Robbins as a loyal but bemused Sancho; Ed Dixon, whose deep bass provides a powerful anchor as the Governor/Innkeeper; Meg Bussert as the Housekeeper, Todd Horman as the Padre/Capt of Inquisition, Sean MacLaughlin as Dr. Carrasco/Duke, and Rosalie Burke as Antonia.

Boyd, with the aid of ingenious set and lighting designers, uses a cleverly constructed single-set to its full advantage. The team members have dreamed up beguiling ways of interpreting windmills, confessionals, and mirrors; they are particularly resourceful when it comes to creating outlandish props. The costumes are eye-catching, as is the make-up of the musical’s predatory crew of criminals. The dancers, as always at the BSC, are terrific.

Man of La Mancha was originally scored for an orchestra that, aside from guitar and bass, did not include strings, which makes the show a good fit for today’s much-reduced musical forces. The BSC band played well.

If you revel in witty lyrics and soaring melodies as I do, you will love this Man of La Mancha.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and five other books of non-fiction, now available as ebooks from Plunkett Lake Press.

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