Man of la Mancha
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 19, 2008
Joshua William Gelb is trying something very interesting in his new production of Man of la Mancha. He's put this musical—which is based on Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and also, loosely, on Cervantes's own imprisonment—into a contemporary prison within some unnamed oppressive regime. There are just eight actors, all men, and they portray all the characters in the story; the music is played on two guitars, with assorted found objects (notably an empty wash pail) for percussion. The concept feels quite brilliant, though its execution here proves sadly uneven.
Gelb's approach is marred, primarily, by a serious error that diminishes the show greatly. This is the casting of Justin Levine in the dual/title role of Cervantes and Don Quixote. Levine is clearly a talented young performer and musician (in addition to his leading role, he is also the show's musical director and provides most of the musical accompaniment on guitar). But note that word "young": Levine's bio and appearance suggest that he's in his mid-20s, while the characters he's playing are both old men, near the ends of the lives, with much life experience behind them. At the very beginning of the show, Cervantes says:
I shall impersonate a man...enter into my imagination and see him! His name is Alonso Quijana...a country squire, no longer young. Bony and hollow-faced...eyes that burn the fire of inner vision.
Levine is handsome and youthful and exuberant—he leaps about the prison cell at the beginning of the show, apparently filled with boundless energy rather than somewhere near the end of his rope—and he never comes close to convincing us that he's the man Cervantes has described. The nobility of the man who tilts at windmills—the characteristic that spawned a word, quixotic—here feels only like an eagerness to please; there is little depth in this man, only an awkward, if appealing, callowness. Levine is also, I believe, a tenor rather than a baritone, and his renditions of Quixote's signature songs—"I, Don Quixote," "Dulcinea," and especially the iconic "Impossible Dream"—lack the gravitas and power that make them, in other circumstances, ineffably moving and sometimes even cathartic. Levine works very hard in this role, don't get me wrong; but he may as well be tilting at a windmill himself. And the production cannot overcome this crucial problem.
Others in the company are more fortuitously cast. Joie Bauer is effective as the Governor, Ricardo Perez-Gonzalez is winning as the Padre, and Omar Perez is convincing as Quixote's opponent, Dr. Carrasco. Gelb sometimes undermines his actors by pulling them out of the situation, though: the conceit of Man of la Mancha is that Cervantes enlists his fellow prisoners to act out the story of Don Quixote, and we need to see them believe in the reality of the world Cervantes creates in order for the play's theme of dreaming an impossible dream to be fully actualized. But Gelb cuts away to the "real" reality of the prison time and again, as though he were directing Deathwatch or Kiss of the Spider Woman, having Cervantes supply scripts to the prisoners from which they read woodenly. At the climax of the piece, the violence is apparently meant to be real—i.e., Cervantes seems to actually get beaten up by his fellow prisoners, to the point where he is not able to complete his tale and it is Sancho rather than Cervantes who announces that he will improvise a satisfactory end to it. This also seemed very problematic to me: it makes Cervantes into a kind of martyr as opposed to a poet whose vision can inspire, enlighten, and enlarge.
I've been hearing good things about Gelb's work for a while now, and notwithstanding what I've said here, he seems to me to be a director worth paying attention to. I can't honestly commend this Man of la Mancha to you, but I am interested in what he and his collaborators come up with in the future.