Review by Dennis Kempton
Zeitgeist Arts’ first theatre production in its home space, Teatro Zuccone, is the latest revival of the 1965 production, Man of La Mancha. This beloved piece of musical theatre originally ran for 2,328 performances on Broadway and earned five Tonys, including Best Musical. Its signature song, “The Impossible Dream” is part of the fabric of musical theatre and one of the iconic pieces of music in the popular idiom.
The story is enchanting in itself. The play within a play revolves around Cervantes’ mad knight, Don Quixote, as he is imprisoned awaiting trial during the Inquisition. With him is his manservant, Sancho. They are targeted by their fellow prisoners. In order to keep the belongings he has brought with him into the dungeon, Cervantes agrees to a trial wherein he will put on a play as his defense. He is in prison awaiting trial as a tax collector who foreclosed on a monastery.
The book and the score are rapturous and emotional. This is perhaps the biggest saving grace for Sheryl Jensen’s direction of Man of La Mancha, as this production is extensively weak where it needs most to be strong. Jensen formerly directed both RENT and Sweeney Todd.
Keith Shelbourn, cast as Cervantes, is better known for his supporting character work in many shows locally, including Beauty and the Beast. He does fair enough in these supporting roles to add colour to the shows in which he is cast. He has a particular cadence to his voice and his acting style that is noticeable from show to show but does not work at all for this lead role. Cervantes, the character, is beautifully tangible and evocatively passionate–at least that’s the idea. Shelbourn’s performance, however, is nearly opposite. The staccato of his delivery lacks flavor and passion. Missed are moments to flare and connect with those on stage around him and, more importantly, with the audience, such as in the closing scenes of the play. He does attempt to get there, I think. But, the attempts come across as overdone and cartoonish. As a vocalist, Shelbourn’s voice has enough timbre to do a passing job in this production, with the exception, of course, of the show’s signature number. Where “The Impossible Dream” should soar, it gets a lacklustre treatment in what sounds like memorization rather than inspiration.
In the early moments of the show, including “Man of La Mancha” Shelbourn’s manservant, Sancho, played by Ken Ahlberg, outshines with strong vocals and real personality on stage. Ahlberg provides the comedic moments needed to make up for what else is lacking, considering there is little visceral chemistry between Ahlberg and Shelbourn on stage.
Likewise, during the clever number “I’m Only Thinking of Him” two distinctly different levels of vocal chops are quite readily apparent. The housekeeper, played by Bree Taylor, has considerably stronger vocal skills than her counterpart, Antonia (Erin Blazevic). Blazevic’s treatment of the lyrics is shrill. But, Taylor’s warm, fluid, and sensual take on her parts of the number play up this contrast remarkably. Placed in the middle is Chris Harwood as the prisoner playing Padre. His voice could use some volume and projection. Yet, at the end of the show, Harwood turns it all around with a haunting and pleasing rendition of “The Psalm” while Cervantes lies on his deathbed. Joined by the show’s company, “The Psalm” turns out to be one of the more polished and successfully performed numbers in the production.
We are pleasantly introduced to the prisoner turned prostitute, Aldonza (Patty Dorn) who becomes the center of Quixote’s focus since he believes her to be the Lady Dulcinea, to whom, as a knight, he has pledged his eternal loyalty. Dorn is earthy and coarse when required, churning out retorts and shoving the lascivious and predatory prisoners out of her way as she has her first moments on stage with a well done “It’s All the Same.” Dorn is also capable of tender moments as her annoyance for Quixote turns into true affection. Unfortunately, the chemistry between the two just isn’t there–more an unfortunate side effect of Shelbourn’s performance. The two don’t ever get quite passionate enough on stage to make it believable, although Dorn’s performance is layered and well-played.
The rest of the ensemble, including Peter Froehlingsdorf and Patrick Colvin–doing double duty as the show’s musical director and pianist–does quite well in their command of the stage and blocking as well as their participation in a couple of the show’s numbers during which they get to vocalize. Unfortunately, there aren’t more of these opportunities as more voices might have mitigated the weak parts of the other performances.
Kirby Wood as the Innkeeper delivers a solid performance and is one of the heavier hitters on the team along with Ahlberg. It is a matter of great fortune that the supporting actors and characters in this particular production of Man of La Mancha are as talented as they are, considering the show has a number of signficant weaknesses.
Without a doubt, the set of Man of La Mancha is a dazzling spectacle, well executed and constructed as the dungeon all of the prisoners endure as they await trial. It is a remarkable use of the Teatro space unlike I have seen previously and testifies to the fact that the black box can be shaped to accommodate shows that might not seem traditionally fit for those spaces, although I do believe Man of La Mancha rightfully belongs on a big stage.
The lighting and sound are pitch perfect. The live music comprised of guitar (Cory Clay), Flute (Kim Hayes and Lorie Scott), bass (Alex Flinner), and pianist (Erin McConnell) is one of the highlights of the production. There is no doubt that no expense has been spared to fit out the Teatro space for the high production values required to do the reputation of this show justice. The same is true for the costumes, designed by Lina Veillet and Kathy Grady.
If you haven’t ever seen Man of La Mancha, go for the production values and for the few stand out performances and for the experience of seeing such a celebrated show. The trade-off is that the lead role is miscast and, ultimately, that’s not the actor’s fault. Shelbourn is pleasantly entertaining doing what he does best in the other shows in which he’s been cast. Fortunately, for the show, the storyline is strong enough and the music compelling enough to help it slug through the challenges that the directing and casting have imposed on this mighty lion of musical theatre. Opening night’s audience, a mostly full house, was generous to the show although quieter than most any of the other many productions of Man of La Mancha I have seen through the years. When one takes on the responsibility of doing a show like Man of La Mancha, one has to get it right. Unfortunately, there are too many weak points in this particular production to put it at the top of the list for budgeting one’s money on what shows to see this busy month of December in Duluth.
Man of La Mancha. Written by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Lee and Lyrics by Joe Darian. Directed by Sheryl Jensen for Zeitgeist Arts at Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior Street, Duluth. With Keith Shelbourn, Patty Dorn, Ken Ahlberg, Peter Froehlingsdorf, Kirby Wood, Erin Blazevic, Bree Taylor, Chris Harwood, Tyler Hanson, Lee Cutler, Ric Stevens, Dereck Williams, Patrick Colvin, Erin McConnell, Cory Clay, Kim Hayes, Lorie Scott, and Alex Flinner. The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays, December 2-19. Curtain time: 7:30 p.m. Be prepared, this show runs at two hours with no intermission. This review is based on the Thursday, December 2 opening night performance.