‘Man of La Mancha’ makes a welcome return

Maurice Emmanuel Parent (left) and Ute Gfrerer (right) in “Man of La Mancha.” Andrew Brilliant/Briliant Pictures

WATERTOWN – Fifty years ago, the Boston Red Sox completed an improbable run to the 1967 American League pennant.

It was called “The Impossible Dream” team, and the team and its followers adopted the song, the centerpiece of the 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha.”

The song and the musical. have since been performed many times on Boston stages, and its return – and its theme of human resilience and hope in the face of death and despair – are always welcome.

The New Repertory Theatre’s lovingly-crafted production of “Man of La Mancha” has Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman putting his own distinct stamp on the work.

He’s done this in several ways. He’s stripped the musical back to its basic elements, eschewing the additional scenery included in some later productions and utilizing a few props and costumes to tell the story.

Michael Levesque as Sancho Panza. Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

He’s setting the prison of the story in the basement of a church, another connection to the theme of religious oppression that not only includes the Inquisition Cervantes faced in the 16th century, when he wrote, but by also shifting at times to the 1960s, he includes the years of the military dictatorship of Spain’s Francisco Franco, moving at that time in concert with the Catholic Church.

Ocampo-Guzman and music director David Reiffel have authored spare but most effective musical arrangements using ukulele, guitars, trumpet, accordion, bass, and a piano, almost all of which are being played by actors on stage – there are four orchestra members listed –with the arrangements allowing the vocals to take center stage.

The storyline follows the writer/actor/tax collector Miguel de Cervantes (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and his secretary (Kevin Levesque), who have been tossed into a Spanish dungeon and are immediately set upon by fellow prisoners eager to steal their meager belongings, which include a precious manuscript.

As the pair await questioning by the fearsome Inquisition for crimes against the church – to wit foreclosing on a monastery as a tax collector – the prisoners conduct a mock trial with the aim of finding Cervantes guilty and taking what he has.

Cervantes brokers a deal with his fellow prisoners. If he can craft an entertainment that satisfies the “jury” of his fellow prisoners, he will be allowed to keep his possessions.

Cervantes takes upon himself the roles of an elderly nobleman named Alonso Quijana, a man who drifts in and out of reality, and the knight errant he believes himself to be, Don Quixote de la Mancha, who tilts at windmills and charges off to misadventures alongside his aide and friend Sancho Panza.

He assigns the prisoners various roles. The mock-trial’s prosecutor ( an excellent Davron S. Monroe), a prisoner called “The Duke,” is chosen by Cervantes to portray Dr. Sanson Carrasco, the fiancé of Quijana’s niece Antonia. Carrasco believes the site of Quijana tilting at windmills is harming the family’s image and, along with the local priest, sets off to jolt him back to reality.,

Parent is as facile, agile and versatile an actor as there is on local stages, good news since he is essentially playing several different characters, including Cervantes, the elderly Quijana and the imaginary Don Quixote. The arrangements have lessened the vocal demands of the role, helping Parent to put the songs over without stretch or strain,

It’s hard to know what to make of the take on Pancho Sanza, Don Quixote’s sidekick, by Levesque, since his portrayal of the comic foil comes complete with a strap-on belly; he’s kind of a ukulele-playing Steve Martin.

There are two roles in “La Mancha” that demand big, room-filling voices, and they are both being played by operatically-trained actors. Stefan Barner nicely fills the bill as Father Perez, who is genuinely concerned for the welfare of Quijana in “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and the lovely “To Each His Dulcinea.”

Ufe Gfrerer, a native of Austria and an internationally-known opera singer, makes her New Rep debut as Aldonza, the kitchen wench whom the knight errant holds up as his lady Dulcinea. Her voice lifts every number she’s part of, including “It’s All The Same,” “What Does He Want of Me?” and “Aldonza.”

Todd Yard and Shonna Cirone, who were husband and wife in Moonbox’s recent musical “Barnum,” are fun here as Manuel, the beleaguered innkeeper and erstwhile “king of the castle”and his long-suffering wife, Maria. Yard also plays the prisoner who allows Cervantes to stage his tale.

The set design by Eric Levenson, whose father, according to a Boston Globe story, fought in the Spanish Civil War, features elements of the actor Cervantes is, the religious bent of the prison, and a large upstage mural that evokes the Spain of the 1960s.

Fifty years after it was the backdrop to a local pennant race to remember, “The Impossible Dream” still stirs the soul and and Parent puts it over with great aplomb, reminding us of the importance of “The Quest,” whatever shape it may take.

This New Rep production is a worthy revival, different in many ways from past productions but true to the spirit of the tale of Cervantes, a hopeless optimist always “reaching for the unreachable star.”

The New Repertory Theatre production of “Man of La Mancha.” Book by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman. Music direction by David Reiffel. Movement direction by Judith Chaffee. Costume design by Frances Nelson McSharry. Lighting design by Jeff Adelberg, At the Mosesian Center for the Arts through Dec. 24. newrep.org

 

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