In their production of the classic Man of LaMancha, the folks at Kent State University’s Porthouse Theatre have not only tapped into the show’s theme but have embodied it completely.
In Dale Wasserman’s 1965 musical, playwright Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant, Sancho Panza, have been thrown in a jail cell to wait judgement from the Spanish Inquisition after taxing the church. While the two await their trail, they plead their case to their fellow cellmates in the form of a play, telling the story of the mad knight Don Quixote.
The hard-nosed prisoners quickly become enamored by the play, joining in on the fun by portraying characters themselves. But as you sit in the audience watching Man of LaMancha, you’ll realize that, you too, are enchanted, not just by the story, but by the near-magic that is Porthouse’s production.
The set design by Patrick Ulrich is multi-leveled and resembles stone—with iron-looking adornments, sewage grates and a drop-down staircase completing the prison illusion. As Cervantes launches into his Don Quixote storyline, the prisoners use anything from wooden crates to lattices to create the play’s setting.
These play-within-a-play locale illusions are further created with the help of lighting designer, Cynthia R. Stillings, whose colorful lighting shifts to reflect the mood of Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s music and lyrics.
Originally performed off-Broadway in 1965, on Broadway a year later and since receiving four Broadway revivals, Man of LaMancha can safely be considered a classic—and, in turn, has more than once been described as a chestnut. And while this classic nature is well reflected by musical director Jonathan Swoboda and his 10-piece orchestra, the musical feels far from a chestnut.
The brilliant Fabio Polanco plays Cervantes, who in turn portrays Don Quixote. As he battles windmills, rides his burros to the next foe, mistakes an inn for a castle and a shaving bowl for a golden helmet, Polanco has a magnetic presence on stage.
Quixote may be an old gentleman who has mistaken himself for a knight, and is obviously a bit confused, but he is pure of heart and lives his life by the virtues of nobility and honor. Polanco embodies this perfectly, emanating a charming, sweet and downright likeable persona—and all with a wonderful voice.
With Polanco’s portrayal of Quixote, it’s easy to see why his manservant, Sancho, likes him so much. Timothy Culver plays the servant, placing dotting and protective looks on Quixote as he indulges the knight by joining him on his adventures. Culver’s voice and presence compliments that of Polanco’s, which is well displayed in the duo’s opening song, “Man of LaMancha (I, Don Quixote).”
While the audience will immediately fall in love with Quixote, the serving wench and prostitute, Aldonza, takes slowly to the man despite his outward adoration. He sees beyond Aldonza’s low station in life and grimy skirts and corset designed by Grace Cochran Keenan. Genny Lis Padilla plays the feisty, down-on-her-luck maiden. Padilla’s strong vocals and no-nonsense attitude shines in her song “It’s All the Same,” while her reprise of “Dolcenea” will bring you to tears.
Aldonza’s tough exterior is in-part the fault of the ensemble of muleteers who constantly proposition and torment her. These muleteers move about the stage in an interesting, ballet-like fashion choreographed by Martin Céspedes.
The exceptional Brian Chandler is intense and powerful in his role as The Governor, who acts as the leader of the prisoners. Another well-played character is the strict and stoic Cody Hernandez as The Duke.
Despite the presence of only a handful of equity actors, there is no shortage of talent on Porhouse’s stage, with every member of the cast expressing theatrical prowess—from the Padre, the Barber and Quixote’s niece and housekeeper, played by Jay White, Morgan Thomas-Mills, Zoe Dongas and Bernadette Hisey, respectively.
Terri J. Kent had a sure hand and clear vision in her direction. This production of Man of LaMancha feels fresh, balanced, confident and complete, with all elements—from the cast to creatives—working together seamlessly.
The passion behind this production is obvious. And it translates.
With knights, battles, a love story, plentiful funny moments and a heroic score, Man of LaMancha seems to have it all. But what it does most effectively is display just how powerful of a story form theater can be.
Through June 29 at the Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223. Tickets: $26-40. Visit kent.edu/porthouse or call 330-672-3884.