by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and Lyrics by Joe Darion
Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote: Tom Rooney
Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway in 1965 and quickly
entered the ranks of the classics of the American musical theatre. It is an
inspired treatment of Cervantes’ Don Quixote story and continues to delight
audiences all around the world. More than that, it is recognized as part of a
genre that was created with commercial success in mind but is now taken
seriously by non-profits far beyond Broadway. The Stratford Festival has been
taking the American musical seriously for decades, but so too are opera
companies everywhere. Chicago Lyric Opera, for example, presents a Rogers and
Hammerstein musical every season. Can the Met be far behind?
Major composers over
the years have taken an interest in the demented figure of Don Quixote, a man
who believes he can right wrongs and defeat all the bad guys in this world.
Richard Strauss was particularly successful with his tone poem Don Quixote, in which a cello soloist
takes the role of “the knight of the woeful countenance.” The best-known
operatic treatment is Don Quichotte
by Jules Massenet. It is rarely performed but recently got an airing by the Canadian Opera Company (COC).
Man of La Mancha has enjoyed success
far greater than either one of them. Undoubtedly, one of its greatest assets is
the hit tune “The Impossible Dream,” in which both words and music capture the
very essence of the man Don Quixote and lend themselves to being repeated
throughout the show as a leitmotif.
The other compelling
ingredient is the book, the way in which Miguel de Cervantes’ early Seventeenth
Century novel has been transformed into a stage play. It was Dale Wasserman’s
invention to imagine a play within a play. We don’t know much about Cervantes
life but Wasserman invents one that is highly credible. He imagines that
Cervantes has been travelling through Spain with a small theatrical troupe when
he is arrested and thrown into prison for something he did in his former line
of a work as a tax collector. Cervantes is then set upon by the other prisoners
and his magnus opus – the novel about Don Quixote, of course – is stolen. To
save it from the flames, Cervantes improvises versions of the tales told in his
novel to entertain his tormentors.
wins over his fellow inmates and gets his manuscript back, but more than that,
he inspires them to identify with Don Quixote and dream the impossible dream.
For some observers
this is pure hokum and diminishes the literary quality of Cervantes’ original
novel. Many critics feel that the message of the novel is far darker than that
of the musical. Cervantes’ novel, they say, is really about a mentally ill old
man who sets out on a fool’s errand. He understands nothing about what is
really happening in the world around him and as he confronts supposed
adversaries, he is repeatedly humiliated. It is a sad story that ends badly.
produced Man of La Mancha before. It
was done in 1998 at the Festival Theatre with Juan Chioran remembered as a
superb Cervantes/Don Quixote, but this latest version is altogether worthy of
the nearly 50 years history of the show.
The sets by Douglas
Paraschuk are massively conceived and suitably menacing for a musical that
takes place entirely within the confines of a Seventeenth Century Spanish
prison. In the background, we see the blades of a windmill turning slowly. They
remind us of Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills, but also of the cruelty of the
Spanish Inquisition, in which men are inexorably ground down, as millwheels
grind grain to dust.
In front of the
windmill is a raised drawbridge leading up to some massive doors. From time to
time during the play, the doors are flung open at the top of the stairs, the
drawbridge is lowered with the hideous sound of chains clanking, and soldiers
descend into the prison to take away more wretches for torture and execution.
The dual roles of
Cervantes and Don Quixote are an extraordinary challenge for any actor. Time
and again, he must pass convincingly and almost imperceptibly from one
personage to the other. He must be not only a superb actor but also a singer of
some stature. Tom Rooney was ideal in the role. His acting was strong but never
over the top and his singing was wonderful. As both actor and singer he makes a
beautiful sound with his voice, but more than that, he is able to express both
the heroic aspirations of the two characters and the melancholy of their
|Tom Rooney as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote |
in Man of La Mancha. Photo by Erin Samuell.
Steve Ross as Sancho
Panza provided an excellent foil for his two masters, and Robin Hutton as
Aldonza captured all the earthiness the part requires. Throughout the play Don
Quixote has mistaken her for his beloved Dulcinea and by the end she has come
to almost believe it herself. Hutton’s transformation is touching.
Director Robert McQueen’s production was excellent in all the myriad details that make a group
of actors a real ensemble. There were only two scenes I found unconvincing. The
first comes at the end of Act I. The gang rape of Aldonza was unnecessarily
cruel and violent, and left several audience members – myself included - with a
serious case of nausea as they headed out for intermission. The scene was
obviously Wasserman’s idea, but it was director McQueen who made it so graphic
in this production.
The second comes near
the end of the show. As the play
unfolds, it is very clear that Don Quixote is a Christ-like figure, at least in
Wasserman’s conception, but for his death scene we don’t need Don Quixote to
mime a crucifixion pose. We get it without the underlining. Again, in my
estimation, director McQueen went too far.
Labels: COC, Concert_Review, Dale Wasserman, Jules Massenet, Man of La Mancha, Ontario, Richard Strauss, Robins Hutton, Stratford Festival, Tom Rooney