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'Man of La Mancha':
Follow That Star

Brian Stokes Mitchell Polishes a Dusty Show

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 25, 2002; Page C01

Seven minutes of heaven is what you get for the more than two hours you'll have to invest in the soggy new "Man of La Mancha" at the National Theatre. Don't get me wrong: Those seven sweeps of the clock are pretty darn precious, considering that they are provided by Brian Stokes Mitchell, he of the satiny baritone.

Mitchell is the heroic Don Quixote in the latest incarnation of this 1965 chestnut, and given the potency and richness of his voice, the glorious quest here could very well be a contract with the Metropolitan Opera. His renditions of "I, Don Quixote," "Dulcinea" and -- what's the obscure one? that "Impossible Dream" thing? -- are so affecting that you'd be happy if he chucked the helmet and breastplate, slipped into a turtleneck and crooned a couple dozen more.

Come to think of it, "An Evening With Brian Stokes Mitchell" would undoubtedly be a lot more fun than another encounter with "La Mancha," a musical that, like an aging member of Congress, never seems to know when to stop running. It has been only 10 years since the last major production, a desultory version that featured the curious pairing of Raul Julia and Sheena Easton. That show also played in Washington before heading to Broadway, where it fizzled and closed in three months. (The Broadway original ran for more than 2,300 performances.)

Mitchell's interest was apparently the major impetus for this revival, which opens on Broadway in December. He's earning that kind of clout. With a Tony Award for "Kiss Me, Kate," well-received appearances in "Ragtime" and the Kennedy Center's "Sweeney Todd," he has emerged as one of those rare personalities in the modern musical theater, a leading man with star quality.

One golden throat, however, is not nearly enough to carry a musical, especially one that presents as many challenges as "La Mancha." It is clear that this production was assembled with care. The director is Jonathan Kent, who formerly headed London's vaunted Almeida Theatre, which originated Kent's powerhouse "Medea" with Diana Rigg, and the cast is bursting with potential assets, among them such proven Broadway pros as Ernie Sabella, Stephen Bogardus and, most promisingly, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza, the fallen woman Quixote redeems with his boundless optimism.

This wildly uneven production as yet shows none of them at their best, and it just may be that the obstacles thrown in their way, care of the limp book by Dale Wasserman, are fairly insurmountable. Kent, directing a musical for the first time, makes choices with regard to setting and staging that appear to complicate rather than ease their burdens. The result is a leaden evening whose listlessness is shaken only by the three or four timeless melodies that have been "La Mancha's" signature since the show was unveiled almost 40 years ago at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut.

The luscious standards like "Dulcinea" mask some of the inadequacies of the book. The show, based on Wasserman's own television script "I, Don Quixote," is set in the late 1500s in a prison in Seville, where Don Miguel de Cervantes awaits an audience with the interrogators from the Inquisition. Pressured for his story by his fellow inmates, he decides to enact the tale of his greatest creation, Quixote, transforming the prison into a stage and his predicament into a chance to test the limits of the chivalrous courage that he espouses in his fiction.

"La Mancha" was musical drama, not musical comedy, an antidote to all those big, brassy musicals with the high-stepping choruses. Today, in a dramatic universe filled with the likes of "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables," it does not seem as special. The narrative is choppy and repetitive, and the dialogue is all noble -sounding overkill. "What prison can hold a man's imagination?" Cervantes asks. As if he needed to.

If the show traditionally has been presented in spare surroundings, it is Kent's notion to redefine the musical's physical world, to give it an operatic scale. The prison Paul Brown has designed is a monumental iron pit: it looks like one of those terrifying, dank funnels that Tom Cruise might rappel into in a "Mission: Impossible" sequel. Along the towering semicircular backdrop is a clanking, winding metal staircase that moves and divides. The back wall separates too, to reveal the beauty -- mountains, moon, sunflowers -- beyond the prison. (The director has a thing for walls; at the end of his "Medea" they collapsed in a thunderous heap.)

There are a couple of good effects; during one number, an actor rides in on a giant lantern that descends from the rafters. Overall, though, the set saps the intimacy of the piece. It's so grand that it dwarfs the performers, and the only thing that successfully competes with it is Mitchell's vibrato. And in a show, too, that is short on dance, Luis Perez's choreography is a diminished achievement. A Gypsy number is mediocre, and the staging of Aldonza's rape feels false and halfhearted.

On paper, this cast reads like a starting lineup for the World Series. Mastrantonio, an actress with startling range -- I've seen her in everything from "Twelfth Night" to a bizarre off-Broadway musical, "The Knife," about a sex-change operation -- is still finding her way as Aldonza. She's got the toughness for this furious, abused creature (maybe the most clearly defined character in the show) but not yet the ferocity. The portrayal seems to gather force only as the musical winds down. Not until she gives herself over to her self-lacerating "Aldonza" -- "The most casual bride," she sings, "of the murdering scum of the earth" -- is Mastrantonio's power apparent, and that's a little late to get started.

Bogardus, in the thankless role of the destroyer of Quixote's fantasies, and Mark Jacoby, as the local padre, are given scant opportunity to display their considerable skills. Sabella, meanwhile, such a rewarding foil for Nathan Lane a few years ago in the Broadway revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," is the comic relief here, portraying Sancho, Quixote's sidekick. His Sancho is from Andalusia by way of Canarsie, which is fine, but vocally he's struggling, and it's a big singing part.

And, of course, it's no stroll in the park to vie with the elegant sound a singer like Mitchell can produce. The vocals are indeed the most galvanizing aspect of his performance. His Quixote is still one-dimensional, more a stock figure than fully flesh-and-blood. The moment that now works best, when he and Mastrantonio connect most vibrantly, is his deathbed scene, because he allows for the betrayal of that most human of characteristics, vulnerability.

Still, for consolation, there is always the payoff that you can be sure will come about an hour and 10 minutes into the show, when Mitchell steps into the light and briefly makes you believe in reaching for that unreachable star. As for the sensation of unbeatable musical theater, well, on this occasion anyway, that will have to remain the impossible dream.

Man of La Mancha. Book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion. Directed by Jonathan Kent. With Nastascia Diaz, Don Mayo, Bradley Dean, Olga Merediz, Frederick B. Owens, Jamie Torcellini. Sets and costumes, Paul Brown; lighting, Paul Gallo; sound, Tony Meola. Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Nov. 10 at the National Theatre, Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street NW. Call 800-447-7400 or visit www.telecharge.com

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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