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Giants in the Distance

An old knight stumbles into battle for this local theater

Tamarin Lawler is not Dulcinea.

By Erica Bauman | Posted 1/20/2010

Man Of La Mancha

By Dale Wasserman, lyrics by joe Darion, music by Mitch Lee

At Vagabond players through Feb. 7

At the beginning of Man of La Mancha, Miguel De Cervantes (Edward J. Peters ) states "I come in a world of iron to make a world of gold." And while the Vagabond Players' production of the Dale Wasserman musical isn't quite gold, it is a pleasant diversion.

Man of La Mancha weaves together two different stories: Cervantes, a poet and idealist, sits in prison awaiting his interrogation by the Inquisition. Faced with a mock trial by his fellow prisoners, Cervantes presents his defense in the best way he knows how--through a play, which introduces the world of Don Quixote de la Mancha (also played by Peters). Don Quixote is an old man, formerly respected and wealthy, who has escaped the disappointing world around him into one of fantasy. His sense of honor and virtue as a knight is reflected in the devotion shown to him by his "squire" Sancho (played by the boisterous B. Thomas Rinaldi), and the slow admiration that he earns from the embittered Aldonza (Tamarin Lawler). Don Quixote's tale is one of hope and the power of dreaming.

This message hits the audience in a visual sneak attack. Set designer Tony Colavito uses the small theater to its best advantage, utilizing staircases to increase the stage's surface area, and creating a visual world that moves seamlessly from prison to tavern to church. The audience is none the wiser that the lush world of Don Quixote that they see is what they themselves project upon the stage, and when the harsh reality of Cervantes prison cell returns to the play, it is jarring for both characters and audience members.

Unfortunately, the use of imagination carries over into the music. Due to the small space available in the theater, the orchestra is regrettably limited in both size and sound. And while the quiet, acoustic music works for some of the more intimate numbers, the singers easily overpower the instruments, and those grand, rousing numbers Man of La Mancha is known for lose their mojo.

Don Quixote's madness--his belief that he is a knight in a magical world--is a sort of personal choice to live in a world that is his ideal, and no part of the show expresses this more than the iconic song, "The Impossible Dream." Peters does a commendable job, gracefully balancing the dual characters of Quixote and Cervantes, and there is no doubt that he is a gifted singer, but he doesn't convincingly pull off singing and acting at the same time. There is very little of the character present in the musical numbers, which causes the illusion of the play to slip. Similarly, the character of Aldonza lights up her dialogue with a harsh, Rosie Perez-ish wit, but Lawler becomes seemingly exhausted during her songs, when that fire should burn even brighter.

The main conflict in the show is whether Don Quixote's behavior is a sickness, or simply an admirable utopian pursuit. At our hero's side is Sancho, who explains that he plays along with Quixote simply because he likes the guy. Rinaldi's Sancho is large and exuberant, and instantly the audience's best friend. His nuanced performance of the character is a guide through the emotional levels of the show.

Overall, the cast of the production showed an energy and attention to detail with their characters. In the musical number "I'm Only Thinking of Him," the talents of actresses Kelsey Lake and Liz Boyer Hunnicutt (who play Quixote's niece and housekeeper, respectively) are showcased in what turns out to be the most delightful moment of the show. Lake and Hunnicutt's characters are blissfully over the top, and by playing to the ridiculous, they transform two characters that could be seen as callous and petty into bumbling antagonists you can't help but like. The show in general isn't that different; a little clumsy, and not quite reaching its lofty mark, but with enough wit and charm to add some shine to that rusty armor.

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