Don Quixote (Rusty Ferracane) sees darkly into the mirror that holds Sancho (Jon Gentry).
Jeff Kida

La Mancha for All Seasons

Phoenix Theatre is celebrating its 80th anniversary by resuscitating a lot of tried-and-true favorites -- the sort of popular fare normally confined to community theater and junior-college companies that cater to a "neighborhood" crowd. But this Equity house's current production of Man of La Mancha is so perfectly realized and entertaining that it presents a compelling case for reviving hoary musicals that we've seen time and again.

This La Mancha features a notable cast and a director full of clever ideas about how to bring Dale Wasserman's masterpiece to the stage. Watching this upmarket exhumation is like leafing through a book of production photos of the show's historic best moments (a tone set by the display of Wasserman's own La Mancha artifacts in the lobby). For added diversion, there's the stunt casting of Michelle Gardner, far too often cast as a musical comedy foil, as the slatternly Aldonza.

Man of La Mancha, based on Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote, has been done to death since its spectacular Broadway debut in 1965. But director/choreographer Michael Barnard has made some smart changes that help delineate the shifts between the play, the play within a play, and the delusions of the hero of the play within a play. And Barnard's choreography, which often relies on unsubtle kick lines and other crowd-pleasers, is simpler and more restrained here. He's blocked movement and designed steps that are more natural for a cellarful of musical-theater prisoners and perfectly suited to the material.


Man of La Mancha

At Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell.

Continues through Sunday, October 1. 602-254-2151

Gardner's performance as the whore Aldonza is technically faultless, but it helps to forget every other interpretation of the role one may have already seen. Hers is a kinder, gentler Aldonza, and one sees the potential for reformation in her from the start. Gardner's dispassionate delivery and vocal prowess revitalize a role that's traditionally more actorly and less about the beautiful songs written for her.

Despite Gardner's forceful performance, Rusty Ferracane still dominates the production. In the title role, he's suitably hammy, but brings some style to Quixote's regal, exaggerated stance, which is usually played for laughs. The result is a less clownish and therefore more sympathetic Quixote, and a better contrast to sidekick Sancho's dumb-show shenanigans. (I thought I'd tired of Jon Gentry's goofball antics until I saw him as Sancho. He's delightful here, and has a pleasant singing voice to boot.)

The large supporting cast, made up of nearly every musical-theater talent in town, doesn't squander a moment of stage time. Jeanine Pacheco does all that can be done with Antonia, an indistinct role that's usually overshadowed by Aldonza. At the matinee I attended, Pacheco's microphone went dead during her first solo, yet her lovely voice reached to the back of the house. And her brief duet with Gardner on "Dulcinea" transforms the dumbest deathbed scene in the history of theater into an uplifting, lump-in-the-throat musical moment.

James Zannelli's stunning performance as the duke even overcomes the show's single big goof: Barnard's dorky vision of the Knight of Mirrors as Darth Vader. This errant soldier arrives in a black cloak and a monstrous metal headdress that shoots laserlike lights into the house, and has an electronically altered voice that set the house to tittering (the old codger on my right performed an impromptu impersonation of Vader's asthmatic breathing upon the Knight's arrival onstage). This bit brings the old-fashioned fable crashing into the 20th century.

The pit band -- conducted by Ron Colvard -- does splendidly by Mitch Leigh's score and makes significant contributions to the show's more moving moments. Listen carefully and you'll hear snatches of "The Impossible Dream" and other signature refrains throughout.

At two and a half hours, this is a longish La Mancha, but nearly all of it is entertaining. The cast can be applauded for its stamina -- this is an energetic, rough-and-tumble show -- and for proving that plain old-fashioned stage magic can in fact hold its value.


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