By Manning Harris
“Man of La Mancha,” the ultimate musical play about dreams, imagination, and the power of believing, may be the perfect show for Serenbe Playhouse to perform, and it’s running through April 11.
Serenbe, the intrepid little outdoor theatre that could, has become a powerhouse in a few short years, presenting shows that have become benchmarks of excellence such as “Hair” and “Oklahoma!” and giving outdoor “site specific” shows a whole new meaning in Atlanta.
“La Mancha”may not be as huge in scope and dimension as those shows, but its idealistic theme seems made for Serenbe.
Artistic Director Brian Clowdus wanted to “explore a world where magic and imagination could make the impossible possible,” and that is what this show, based on Cervantes’ 17th Century masterpiece “Don Quixote” does, as well as demonstrate the redemptive power of love.
With a book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion, “Man of La Mancha” made its New York debut 50 years ago and opened on Broadway in 1968. It has since been revived several times and performed all over the world.
Into a dungeon during the Spanish Inquisition come a nameless nobleman and his manservant; the nobleman, a poet, author, and tax collector, is charged with foreclosing on a monastery. We learn that his name, oddly enough, is Cervantes, and he and his servant are attacked by their fellow prisoners, who instantly set up a mock trial.
It appears that Cervantes (Bryant Smith) has read so many chivalric novels that his mind is a bit addled: He says his real name is Don Quixote, that he is a knight-errant, and that his mission is to undo wrongs and bring justice to the world—aided by his “squire” Sancho (Will Skelton). He is in the thrall of the glory of fantasy.
One of the achievements of “La Mancha” is that the play seems on the verge of both tragedy and comedy at the same time—quite a remarkable feat.
One prisoner named Aldonza (Laura Floyd), a woman of low reputation (shall we say) is renamed Dulcinea by Don Quixote; he wishes to perform knightly favors for her; she is stunned.
The Labyrinth (which Serenbe has named the site for the playing area) is actually quite small; you walk down a ridge and across a wooden pathway, which is surrounded by rocks, and it’s quite an adventure just getting to your seats. But there’s nothing small about the tall dark trees which serve as the backdrop (it’s nighttime, you know), and as the lights and hidden orchestra become visible and audible, the magic begins. It’s all very intimate, and the small, almost bare stage seems perfect to immerse oneself in the story.
You’ve heard many of the songs: “Man of La Mancha,” “It’s All the Same,” “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” “I Really Like Him” (a classic paean to friendship), “Little Bird, Little Bird,” and of course, “The Impossible Dream.” It’s a lovely, memorable score.
Bryant Smith, who recently played Jean Valjean in Aurora’s “Les Misérables,” proves (as if he needed to) what a fine actor he is, as well as talented singer. His “Impossible Dream” begins small, as tautly spoken thoughts, and only gradually blooms into the full, thrilling operatic ending. It’s easily the high point of the evening.
But “La Mancha” is hardly a one-man show. Laura Floyd has a magnetic intensity as she listens, at first doubtfully, then with full conviction, to Quixote’s version of who she really is. Will Skelton’s Sancho is charming (“Have patience and shuffle the cards”).
This is a fine cast. Randi Garza is a big talent with real presence. Robert Lee Hindsman, Allison Southwood, Austin Tijerina (a choreographer’s dream), Daniel Burns, Lauren Chamblin, Brittany Ellis,and Alex Towers are all onstage much of the time; their contributions are invaluable.
Once again Bobby Johnston provides perfect sound, aided by Daniel Pope. Nick Silvestri is the music director. And once again Bubba Carr creates seamless choreography. Tara O’Neill’s lighting and Abby Parker’s costumes add much.
Brian Clowdus directs with his customary aplomb; Ryan Oliveti is assistant director.
This version of “LaMancha” is slightly streamlined (there is no intermission); and if you like that famous creaky upstage staircase that ominously descends to lead people to the Inquisitors, you may prefer the indoor version.
But if you have a spirit of adventure and remember the metaphysical aphorism that guides the show (in my opinion): “You’ll see it when you believe it,” then Serenbe’s lovely “La Mancha” awaits you.
For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.