By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
nobody expects songs
with the Spanish Inquisition
If ever a role called for heaps of bravura, it's Don Quixote. Errant knight, madman, tilter at windmills, storyteller--Quixote is the blazing sun around which all elements revolve in Man of La Mancha, now playing at Addison's WaterTower Theatre.
Quixote must be a galvanic presence in this piece, someone the audience has to admire almost instantly for his purity of heart and his dedication to a "glorious quest" of righting all wrongs and marching into hell "for a heavenly cause." We need to fall in love with this dreamer at first sight and, as the story unfolds, we should start to care deeply about the man beneath the armor. We should worry about his shaky hold on reality and wonder how he might escape what looks to be a tragic fate. We should be riveted on his every word even when those words are drippy sentiments such as "I see the woman each man holds secret in his heart."
That's a lot to ask of any character, but it's what this show requires. Find yourself presented with a lesser Quixote who's lacking in the charisma department and all aspects of this oddly antique musical drama suffer. The central failure of WaterTower's ambitious Man of La Mancha is that it begins and ends with a smaller-than-life Quixote, just one of the examples in this production of director Terry Martin (assisted by Michael Serrecchia) casting a good actor in the wrong part.
Paul Taylor is the Quixote in question. Taylor is a handsome young man (killer cheekbones) who has exhibited terrific emotional range in leading roles all over town in the past year. Exceptionally effective in WaterTower's Urinetown, The Musical and The Crucible, he brought audiences to tears as a venom-spewing gay activist in Uptown's fine version of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. He is almost always a sure thing when he's cast to his strengths, but Don Quixote isn't the role for him. The muscular character is built to superheroic dimensions, an awkward fit on Taylor's delicate features. So instead of expanding into a role that grows nobler and more mythic in each scene, Taylor seems to shrink before our eyes.
If strong acting were the only requirement for any of the characters in La Mancha, Taylor and the rest of the ensemble at WaterTower would have no problems. But they need big voices for the two big songs (out of 18) composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion came up with for their 1965 Broadway hit--the lilting "Dulcinea" (sung twice) and "The Impossible Dream," sung not just once or twice but three times before the chorus finally stops reprising it long enough for theatergoers to file out and go home (the melody lingering on and on and on).
That song. The whole shebang stops cold for it. Coming about an hour and 20 minutes into La Mancha, "The Impossible Dream" is the money number to be both dreaded and anticipated. Since the first half of writer Dale Wasserman's narrative for the show is like listening to The Canterbury Tales at half speed, the song serves as the energizer, the thing that kicks up the interest in seeing what happens to Quixote, his portly sidekick Sancho Panza (played at WaterTower by Randy Pearlman), the pretty whore Aldonza (Patty Breckenridge) and the gypsies, mental patients and rustics who share the filthy 16th-century Spanish prison where it all takes place.
If "The Impossible Dream" fails to raise gooseflesh or bring a lump to the old throat, it simply isn't living up to its potential. Here again, Taylor comes up woefully short. He acts it OK, talking his way into the first few bars, but he doesn't possess anything close to the deeply textured baritone of La Mancha's best-known stars--the original Quixote, Richard Kiley, and Brian Stokes Mitchell, star of the 2002 New York revival. Taylor's singing voice is pleasant but reedy, more gossamer than lush velvet. Those chest-rumbling low notes and cord-stretching high notes of "The Impossible Dream" prove to be this actor's unbeatable foes.
Same goes for Breckenridge's Aldonza, the battered bar wench lifted from misery by being rechristened as the virtuous "Dulcinea" by Don Quixote. She's another one with a voice that fritters away to breathy squeaks at the higher end of the scale. And while she's adept at playing funny, brassy dames who can belt showstoppers, which she did in Flower Mound Performing Arts' recent City of Angels and in Uptown's musical comedy Aida, Breckenridge isn't good with vulnerability. Her Aldonza is as dry and tough as an old boot, and when the "muleteers" and gypsies start the gang-rape scene, it's hard not to believe she couldn't easily have torn each of them limb from limb (dig those crazy biceps) then bellied up to the bar for a bucket of brew.
La Mancha is a strange show full of contradictory elements. It's easy to lose the plot in its play-within-a-play structure--Quixote is actually a character named Quijana, as played by the writer-turned-tax-collector Don Miguel de Cervantes, who's been imprisoned in Seville for foreclosing on a monastery. Put on "trial" by fellow inmates, Cervantes offers as his defense his famous story of Quixote, a knight who sees beauty and virtue where others see only ugliness and despair. He and Sancho Panza act out the tale using props and costumes pulled from a trunk (the production's one moment of real magic comes when they make horses from random bits of wood, baskets and rope). The inmates take on multiple roles, with the action interrupted intermittently by guards warning them of impending appearances before the Spanish Inquisition. (And yes, it all does take on aspects of a Monty Python routine after a while. If only...)