Encore Michigan

Penny Seats’ ‘La Mancha’ sparkles under the moonlight

Review July 13, 2019 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–The Man of LaMancha is a bonafide classic Broadway musical. But patrons can see it in the twilight and under the stars by The Penny Seats in West Park here through July 27.

The play with music ( I hesitate to call it a musical) is full of history–both the story of the play and the history of the play.  It is adapted from Dale Wasserman’s non-musical 1959 teleplay I, Don Quixote, which was in turn inspired by Miguel de Cervantes and his 17th-century novel Don Quixote. It tells the story of the “mad” knight Don Quixote as a play within a play, performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as he awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition.

The musical debuted on Broadway in 1965 with Richard Kiley (no relation) in the lead role, and the play on which it was based had starred Lee Cobb. That is theater royalty.

Sarah Brown (center) as Dulcinea

John DeMerell inhabits Don Quixote in this production. It is inspired casting. DeMerell is one of the most frequently cast character actors in Michigan. And while we don’t get to see him as a lead very often, Quixote demands that the actor have a wide range–strength, chivalry, but also heart-breaking vulnerability. He is after all a character modeled on Christ by Cervantes. DeMerell can be fierce and romantic, yet when it comes to his love for Aldonza, whom he calls “Dulcinea,” utterly besotted and ultimately crushingly vulnerable. DeMerell plays the role like he understands Quixote to his bones.

Sarah Brown seems born to play Dulcinea. Sultry, exploited, defenseless but for her wits and street-born toughness, she nevertheless carries the Madonna in her face. She cannot understand why Quixote would hold her in such high regard, put her on a pedestal. But the chemistry between DeMerell and Brown make the audience understand perfectly. Her reprise of “Dulcinea” in the second act puts her performance on another level. It is to weep.

Dan Johnson nails the part of Sancho Panza, squire and sidekick to Quixote, who provides humorous commentary throughout the play. Sancho is at once skeptical of Quixote’s penchant for tilting at windmills, but also faithful to his core. Johnson captures the observatory wisdom as well as the devotion.

Directors Phil Simmons and Shelby Seelyey assembled a very tight and talented ensemble of Jennie Rupp, David Collins, Sarah Gunter, Jenna Kellie Pittman, Logan Balcom, Tyler Calhoun, Geoffrey Kelm, Parker Stephen Nolan, Monte LeGrant and Jackie Marlett.

The production more than meets the challenge of sound and lights, which can be a problem in park theater. Not here. Technical Director Dustin D. Miller, Sound Designer Evan Jaslow and Lighting Designer Tyler Chinn make it all work. The lighting bugs add wonder to an already lovely show, but bring a bit of bug spray for the unwelcome predators. Also, you might bring a chair and picnic basket. I sat on one of the retaining walls, though, and it was all good. The weather was very cooperative, and Ben Despard’s costumes and set look good in the natural light.

We live in such a divided society, filled with so many injustices and unfair inquisitions. Seeing, hearing and taking in a bit of Quixotic hope, from the source, is just what the doctor ordered.

Week of 6/17/2024

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