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Stage West's 'La Mancha' is difficult but delightful musical

The musical drama Man of La Mancha is one of the most demanding in musical theater, both of the cast and of the audience.

The plot is a story within a play within a play, moving from one story to another and another and then back, which means you can't doze off and expect to follow all the threads.

The script demands 10 good solo voices, plus a chorus, intricate fight scene choreography, and an accomplished orchestra (oh, the tempo changes!), no small feat for community theater.

Even so, director Barbara Everest managed to find all that, plus an evocative set, props and costumes, for the production playing weekends through Jan. 16 at Stage West Community Playhouse.

Now, if the lighting designers and operators can manage to get some lumens on the actors without losing the appropriately claustrophobic feel of the 17th century dungeon where it all takes place, this show will go down in the books as one of the best ever. On opening night, the lighting was so subdued, especially during the first act, that, many times, characters came and went without notice and others were simply lost in the shadows.

And heaven knows, they all deserved notice for the outstanding job they did with this most difficult show, foremost Bill Myers in the triple role of Miguel De Cervantes, Alonso Quijana and Don Quixote; Dalton Benson as Cervantes's manservant and the Don's sidekick Sancho Panza; and Jessica Nichol as the serving wench Aldonza, renamed Dulcinea by the delusional Don.

In the show, Cervantes has been thrown into prison for attempting to tax a Catholic monastery and is awaiting "purification" by the Spanish Inquisition. His fellow prisoners are gathered in the common area and start stealing the stage costumes from the trunk Sancho has brought with them. One grabs a package of papers and starts to burn it, but Cervantes begs to save it. The prisoners agree to let him have the papers back if they find him worthy in a kangaroo court they conduct for every prisoner awaiting interrogation.

Cervantes takes the role of an aging landowner, Alonso Quijana, and drafts the prisoners to play other roles: Alonso's niece Antonia (Emilee Andrade), who hopes to inherit his wealth; her fiance, Dr. Sanson Carrasco (Stan Kane), who hopes to marry Antonia (and her money); Alonso's housekeeper (Karen Doxey), who would like to marry him; and the sympathetic Padre (Wayne Raymond), who understands all sides.

The story within Cervantes' play has the delusional Alonso taking on the persona of an idealistic knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha, who looks at the violent, dirty, cruel world and imagines that a seedy roadside inn is a beautiful castle and a serving girl/prostitute is a lovely lady.

The play rotates among these three worlds, as Cervantes tells the story and then acts out his two alter-egos.

It's a physical and vocal challenge for any actor. (Rex Harrison was first cast in the role in 1964, but dropped out when it was realized he wasn't quite up to it.) Myers does a truly wonderful job of it, setting the pace with a lively duet with Sancho, Man of La Mancha, near the opening, then crooning a love song to Dulcinea, going into a pompous bombast with the Golden Helmet of Mambrino and closing Act 1 with the gorgeous The Impossible Dream, where he wisely doesn't try for the high note, but sticks with what his clear, strong voice will do.

Myers is much more than a voice; his acting chops are just as impressive, with good facial expression and on-target body language.

Benson first played Sancho when Stage West did La Mancha in 1996, and his current portrayal is as strong and spot-on as it was then. Benson's falsetto is clear and his physical comedy the best, his charm bubbling through in A Little Gossip, I Really Like Him and The Missive.

Ms. Nichol is mesmerizing in the soft tones of What Does He Want of Me? and Dulcinea and moving in her harsh view of men, It's All the Same, and Aldonza, when she describes her degrading, degraded life.

Jack Joyce provide some fine comedy relief as the hapless Barber, who wanders in singing Barber's Song and balancing his barber's tray on his head. Raymond's Padre adds a note of hope with his compassionate To Each His Dulcinea and final Psalm. Kane's voice is impressive in his brief bits in We're Only Thinking of Him. And Matt Veasey is delightful as he comes up with a name for the new knight, The Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

Musical director Jacki Doxey's six-piece orchestra impressively tackles the arduous score, changing tempos, keys and mood with every scene. Choreographer Michelle Alagna's fight scenes are as scary as they should be and her direction of the ponies Megan Berube and Victoria Razzano most appealing.

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If you go

Man of La Mancha, a musical drama, at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill, weekends through Jan. 16. Shows are at 8 p.m., except Sundays at 2 p.m.; $15 adults, $8 ages 17 and younger. Box office is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and one hour before each show. Call (352) 683-5113.

Stage West's 'La Mancha' is difficult but delightful musical 01/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 5:45pm]
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