(Theater Review) ‘Man of La Mancha,’ Barrington Stage Company, 6.28.15

Jeff McCarthy as Don Quixote (photo Kevin Sprague)

Jeff McCarthy as Don Quixote (photo Kevin Sprague)

Man of La Mancha
Barrington Stage Company
Pittsfield, Mass.
June 10-July 11, 2015

Review by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., June 28, 2015) – While the record shows that when it made its premiere in 1965, “Man of La Mancha” was both a critical and commercial success — the original 1965 Broadway production ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical – one still can’t help but wonder what people made of it at the time. I say this based on the stirring, impassioned, and utterly urgent and contemporary production running at Barrington Stage Company now through July 11, 2015.

For one, in some ways, this show was the first rock musical, or if not fully a rock musical in the sense of “Hair,” it certainly was a bridge to the post-Broadway show tune musical that would become ever increasingly more popular. Gone were string arrangements and dance tunes, replaced by faux-Flamenco numbers, whipsmart pop tunes, and novelty numbers, few or any of which aspired to the beauty or aesthetics of the so-called Great American Songbook, even as at least one (“The Impossible Dream”) might be counted among them.

Rather, these numbers, written by the relatively obscure team of Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, served mostly to advance the plot, operetta-style, but in a dark and dramatic manner befitting the dark and dramatic story line.

And as the Barrington Stage production so perfectly captures, the musical must have been astonishing in its time for being so dark and dramatic – more Jean-Paul Sartre than Cole Porter; more Pirandello than Rodgers & Hammerstein. One dare says that nobody went to Broadway expecting the Spanish Inquisition, which, then as it does now, served as the perfect symbol of state violence and the suppression of free speech and thought. Some of this was patched together from the real-life story of Cervantes, some from his grand opus, “Don Quixote,” but plenty of it simmered as the stew bubbling up from the streets. As a New York Times critic wrote in a review of a 2007 revival, “Man of La Mancha” was “a pioneering effort in what could perhaps be called the musical-theater counterculture.”

For better or worse, and of course I mean for better, the show is timeless, and while there is a Romantic side to the story (in the upper-case sense of Romantic as much or more than the lower-case sense), there is a harsh, political and aesthetic tension that runs through the show, so clearly put forth by the terrific cast at Barrington Stage – including Jeff McCarthy as Don Quixote, Tom Alan Robbins as Sancho Panza, Sean MacLaughlin as Dr. Carrasco, and the glorious scene-stealing Felicia Boswell as Aldonza/Dulcinea.

Scene from 'Man of La Mancha' (photo Kevin Sprague)

Scene from ‘Man of La Mancha’ (photo Kevin Sprague)

What may have been merely “countercultural” in 1965 is unfortunately right out of the headlines 50 years later, and this “Man of La Mancha” can’t help but stir up anxieties about Guantanamo, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, the NSA, and all the artists and journalists and bloggers and dreamers around the world who are being silenced, jailed, beheaded, or worse by modern-day Inquisitors, few of whom don the Darth Vader-like costumes they wore in this musical, but most of whom appear in Western suits and ties or in the religious garb of their communities.

That this “Man of La Mancha” can in spite of all this grab your attention, draw you in, make you care about Quixote, and even have you singing along in spite of the cruelty and brutal violence being portrayed on the stage is both a tribute to the brilliant source material (thank you, Cervantes), and to the vision of Julianne Boyd, who directed the show and who is artistic director of Barrington Stage Company. I don’t know what exactly she thought she was doing when she chose to open the season with this show, but it certainly must have been more than, “Let’s open the season with another classical musical!”

The stakes here are much higher than that, much more urgent. “Man of La Mancha” is as vital and up-to-the-minute a piece of theater as you will see all summer.

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