Over the years I’ve probably seen twenty or more productions of “Man of La Mancha” ranging from professional Broadway touring companies to High School adaptations. I've seen this show done with grandiose vocal and theatrical production and with far too much emphasis on “The Impossible Dream” one of the truly great songs of American musical theater. I've seen productions that so over-emphasized the physical production and the imaginative staging of the fantasy adventures of the “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” that one almost forgot that the play takes place in a prison cell, and even more, within the mind of one man, the writer Cervantes. I say all this to emphasize how easy it is for this show to go wrong, and how distinctive and exceptional Taproot’s intimate and beautifully acted production is. I think this is the most accurately realized and theatrically satisfying production of this show that I’ve ever seen.
Scott Nolte has directed this company into a performance of depth and integrity equal to the profound integrity of Cervantes himself, equal to the dignity and nobility of one man’s triumph of imagination over the brutal confines of his world. Jeff Berryman is stunning as Cervantes/Don Quixote and the ensemble is both balanced and remarkably rounded in their individual characterizations. The intimacy of the starkly beautiful set by Mark Lund and the elegant lighting by Andrew Duff holds us within this subterranean prison cell as Cervantes’ poetic imagination roams and conquers the vast world outside.
In that most inhuman of environments we have nothing but the sheer humanity of these people to populate both what is and what might be. Edd Key handles the musical direction and the acoustic accompaniment so that the songs always serve the play, always come from the characters rather than feeling like they are being performed by the actors. Ultimately, though, it is Nolte’s conviction and understanding of the emotional and ethical center of this story that molds these talents into a company, that allows this imagining to achieve a reality greater than the physical reality of the world.
While Berryman brought his customary craftsmanship to the role of Cervantes/Don Quixote, there was much more than mere craftsmanship in this performance. Berryman is a playwright himself, and his personification of the great storyteller and his noble avatar felt integral to the actor, the writer Cervantes and Quixote’s heroic quest. Technically the performance was impeccible, with perfect proportion in his expression and a seamless embodiment of the play’s underlying theme, that there is an essential nobility in every man’s battle to do good and to find meaning in the struggle with life itself.
For the true Knight, that means fighting for the honor of his Lady, in this case Dulcinea, whom the world knows as the abused and degraded wench, Aldonza, but who, to Quixote, is the perfect embodiment of all female virtue and beauty. Candace Vance plays both roles very well, making Aldonza a coarsened and embittered woman who cannot, at first, imagine how anyone could see her as anything else, and Dulcinea as a woman who becomes a worthy object of devotion by accepting her worthiness. Ms. Vance does not really have a beautiful voice, but she has a voice that yearns to be beautiful, and that is perfect for this role. Don Darryl Rivera brings good humor and an effortless loyalty to Sancho Panza. Stephen Grenley and Ryan Childers each play a number of roles with clarity and authority. Mr Grenley, in particular, has a gravity and presence that makes him a convincing Governor and vivid in his other roles.
The entirety of this ensemble is perfectly effective in populating these two worlds within one prison. When Mr. Berryman sings “The Impossible Dream” he restrains his powerful, impressive voice in order to make the words begin as the most modest, most commonplace of one’s inner thoughts and then gradually evolve into a grand declaration of finding purpose, meaning and glory in the very act of living. That fealty to the dramatic integrity of this story and this character is what makes this production so extraordinary and so deeply moving. “Man of La Mancha” is a great musical and it has proven itself again and again. This production is not, however, just a fine staging of a familiar work. It is a unique and genuine work of art.
PICTURE ABOVE: Jeff Berryman
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug.