Magnificent “Man of La Mancha” Reaches the Unreachable Star

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“Facts are the enemy of truth.”—Miguel de Cervantes

This line is the crux of the deepest and most philosophical musical ever written.  When minor nobleman, Don Miguel de Cervantes, find himself in prison awaiting the Spanish Inquisition, he is put on trial by his fellow prisoners.  To protect his manuscript, Cervantes pleads guilty and presents the tale of his mad knight, Don Quixote, as his defense.  This is Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion and is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Hilary Adams’ direction is outstanding, flawless, and inventive.  This includes subtle little touches such as having prisoners moving around the dungeon and sharing conversation before the play even begins to the pinpoint accuracy of the beats to the effortless scene changes.  Ms Adams has also coached stellar performances from a dynamic and talented cast which was more than up to the challenge of this epic musical.

Cork Ramer is sensational in the grueling triple role of Miguel Cervantes/Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana.  Ramer’s awesome physical presence draws eyes to him, but it’s his powerful interpretation that will keep eyes riveted to his performance.  Ramer glides smoothly from the witty and well-spoken Cervantes to the staunchly noble Don Quixote to the kindly, but sickly, Alonso Quijana with body language that is just as appropriate.  As Cervantes, he exudes a smooth confidence.  As Quixote, honor and decency.  As Quijana, a withering weakness of the body.  His transition from Quixote to Quijana was one of the most heartbreaking moments of the night as Ramer’s body seemed to collapse in on itself as he transformed from the proud knight to the gravely ill old man.

Ramer is also blessed with a rich and supple deep baritone voice that was capable of an astonishing musical and emotional range.  Ramer was an absolute joy to listen to whether he was heroically singing about finding great glory (I, Don Quixote) or singing about and to his perfect lady (Dulcinea) or proudly reaching tenor quality notes in the play’s signature song, The Impossible Dream.

Noel Larrieu, who plays Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, has, without question, the most natural delivery style I have ever heard.  Every word and syllable that came out of his mouth was completely extemporaneous and Larrieu underplayed Panza so beautifully that it made his proverbs and observations infinitely funnier.

Larrieu was just as spot on with the singing.  His sweet tenor voice shyly telling Aldonza why he squires for Quixote (I Really Like Him) or trying to galvanize the dying Quijana (A Little Gossip).

Jennifer Gilg gives a strong, multilayered performance as Aldonza/Dulcinea.  She does a fine job of evolving from the sullen, hopeless whore to the fair and honorable lady as her eyes are slowly opened by Don Quixote’s philosophy.  However, I thought her Aldonza needed to start at a much lower level to make the evolution to Dulcinea more marked.  Ms Gilg assuredly had the right intentions in mind, but just needs to take it a bit further and be even coarser and bitterer to begin the show.

Ms Gilg’s performance was strengthened by her gorgeous soprano voice.  She also displayed a strong talent for being able to act through a song as she found the precise emotional points of each number whether she was listlessly singing about her life as a whore (It’s All the Same) or trying to get Quixote to look at her the way she perceived herself (Aldonza) or accepting herself the way Quixote saw her (Dulcinea Reprise).

Steve Krambeck excelled himself with the finest performance of his career as The Duke/Dr. Sanson Carrasco/Barber.  The triple role permitted Krambeck to demonstrate some incredible versatility.  As the Duke, he is a cynical, odious prisoner who is bound and determined to see life as it is and requests to prosecute Cervantes due to his dislike of Cervantes’ idealism and his own hatred of “stupidity, especially when it masquerades as virtue.”  As Dr. Carrasco, he is arrogant and selfish, but motivated by good, if misguided, intentions.  He truly does want to help restore Alonso Quijana to sanity, but wants to do it because he doesn’t relish having a lunatic for an in-law.  However, his flamboyant Barber is the showstopper as his energetic and wimpy interpretation had the audience splitting their sides.  Krambeck also makes for a pretty convincing horse.

John Morrissey is cast perfectly as the Governor/Innkeeper.  As the Governor, he rules the dungeon and presides over the trials with an attitude that he is one to be respected.  As the Innkeeper, he is humble, a bit befuddled, and hilarious as he readily accedes to Don Quixote’s fantasies.  He also has a nice lower tenor singing voice that hits all the right moments after he dubs and renames Quixote The Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

The ensemble also deserves praise for always being in the moment which lent vitality to the show.  Special acknowledgement goes to John E Jones for his portrayal of an exuberant, somewhat dim prisoner who transforms into the kindly and pious Padre and to Ryan Pflug, Andrew Stone, John Ryan, and Adam Hogston for their portrayals of the rowdy and raucous muleteers.

Jim Othuse’s dungeon/inn set is a masterful bit of stage craftsmanship, but it is his lighting design that truly makes it all worthwhile as the simple light changes is what transforms the set from dungeon to inn and back again.  Georgiann Regan’s costumes are pitch perfect from the rags of the prisoners to the cheap armor of Don Quixote.  Jim Boggess and his orchestra deliver once more with a seamless musical performance.

There were a few flaws present in the evening’s performance.  Several lines and lyrics were mixed up and a few actors needed to project more strongly.  A huge fight scene also could use some tidying as it was a bit on the clunky side.

Man of La Mancha gives the audience much more than an enjoyable night of theatre.  It also gives them the gift of hope and the courage to see life as it should be.  How much better would this world be if we all pursued the good in life instead of accepting things as they are?  To paraphrase Cervantes, “God help us.  We should all be men of La Mancha”.

Man of La Mancha plays at the Omaha Playhouse through Oct 18.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for students on Wednesday and $40 for adults and $25 for students Thurs-Sun.  Contact the Box Office at 402-553-0800 or visit their website at www.omahaplayhouse.com. The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

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