Quixote Pie

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...)

The provenance of La Mancha is more interesting than the show itself. It began as a nonmusical television drama written for CBS and starring Lee J. Cobb. Titled I, Don Quixote, the teleplay was optioned for Broadway and turned into a musical at the suggestion of director Albert Marre. The original lyricist was poet W.H. Auden, but his ideas were considered too satirical to be commercial, so they were dumped.

Man of La Mancha was supposed to star Rex Harrison when it debuted in 1964 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. But Harrison, who talk-sang his way to great acclaim in My Fair Lady, dropped out when he discovered how demanding the score would be. The musical finally made it to Broadway in November 1965 with Kiley in the leading role, playing more than 2,000 performances in a stripped-down, one-act production that in many ways presaged the operatic drear of later hits Les Miz and Phantom.

WaterTower sets its La Mancha on one of the most expansive and elaborate stage designs scenic artist Clare Floyd DeVries has ever fashioned for this theater. Thin beams of "sunlight" pierce the gloom of a two-stories-down subterranean dungeon hung with menacing lengths of chain and rope. The effect is wonderfully creepy (mostly thanks to Jason S. Foster's intricate lighting design), but the enormity of the space dwarfs actors who already have a hard time making their characters large enough to be noticed.

Sound problems plague the actors whose miked voices seem to emanate not from their bodies but from somewhere north of the Tollway. The band members, too eager perhaps to get to that third reprise of "The Impossible Dream," race each other and the singers tempo-wise.

Finally, it's not the job of a critic to make casting suggestions, but listening to the voice of Christopher J. Deaton, who plays the small roles of Scorpion and Pedro in La Mancha, I could hear in his warm baritone everything that could send that song soaring to the stratosphere. A newcomer to Dallas stages, Deaton was a knockout as the Wolf and Prince in WaterTower's Into the Woods. If he ever plays Quixote--and he should someday--the theater world will be better for this.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner