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Being Don Quixote

   When I was in high school, my theater teacher was asked to step into the role of Don Quixote in a local company's production of the musical Man of La Mancha. It was two days before opening night. The actor originally cast to play the formidable faux knight had begun to believe he was Miguel de Cervantes, the 17th century writer behind Don Quixote, the source novel for the musical adaptation.

   Anyone familiar with the tale of Don Quixote will recognize the irony in this situation. The title character in Cervantes' masterpiece believes he is a knight and sets forth from his native La Mancha, his sidekick Sancho in toe, in search of adventure and to win the heart of the beautiful, virginal Dulcinea. In reality, Don Quixote is a middle-aged countryman named Alonso Quijano and his "virginal" Dulcinea is a prostitute named Aldonza. But hey, as Don Quixote puts it: "Facts are the enemy of truths."

   From the 1972 film adaptation to numerous stage renditions, I've seen my fair share of Man of La Mancha productions. None have been more visceral, more effective or more impressive than Palm Beach Dramaworks' concert version, onstage at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre through July 21.

   The first production in Palm Beach Dramaworks' Musical Theatre Masters Series, Man of La Mancha is presented in concert, meaning there is no set, minimal costumes and only a trio of musicians–a piano, drum and guitar player–shares the stage with the actors. A handful of music stands, a projector screen and a circular, rotating platform are the lone adornments.

   Despite–or, perhaps, because of–this stark setting, the production is bursting with energy. The musicians and actors work in synergy; foreboding drumbeats penetrate the darkness and then reverberate through the hands of the performers, while Spanish guitar licks underscore character entrances. Under the direction of Clive Cholerton, comedic moments resonate beyond the pause for laughter and poignant points are stuck with the precision of an Olympic gymnast dismounting the balance beam. Ensemble members bounce between roles with ease, while the leads embody their characters so thoroughly that they appear to become one in the same. Cervantes would be proud.

William Michals stars as Don Quixote in Palm Beach Dramaworks' "Man of La Mancha."

   Veteran Broadway actor William Michals steals the show as the Man of La Mancha. He enters as Cervantes, soft spoken and knowledgeable, and transforms into Don Quixote, grandiloquent and delusional. He breathes new life into the musical's two cornerstone songs, "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)" and "The Impossible Dream," and, though he was using a microphone, surely did not require one. Among many reasons to attend this production, Michals' performance is number one.

   His sidekick Sancho, as played by Oscar Cheda, is the perfect accomplice. Cheda's quirky singing voice is a great counterpart to Michals' full vibrato and his steadfast devotion comes through in every ill-thought-out parable and vacuous grin.

   West Palm Beach-native Alix Paige plays Aldonza, the experienced kitchen maid/prostitute who captures Don Quixote's heart. Paige has the most expressive face (particularly her eyebrows) I have ever seen. The production could be mimed and she would still portray every nuance of this multifaceted character.

   Few musicals are as good in concert as in full-blown productions. Many rely on over-the-top dance numbers and theatrical spectacles that get thrown aside in stripped down stagings. Man of La Mancha is one of the exceptions. The illusionary qualities inherent in the show make it the perfect vehicle for imagination. Palm Beach Dramaworks embraces these elements and creates a vibrant production, full of talent and charm.

 

Man of La Mancha is playing through July 21. The second production in Palm Beach Dramaworks' Musical Theatre Masters Series, Company, runs from August 7 through 18.

 

 

Palm Beach Dramaworks wants to give the gift of musical theater to two lucky readers, and guests, by offering up a set of tickets to Man of La Mancha and Company.

Drawing: For Man of La Mancha, July 16, 2013; for Company, August 6, 2013.

online contest - Palm Beach Dramaworks


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