- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

Director Jonathan Kent has a treasure in his limber restaging of "The Man of La Mancha" with Brian Stokes Mitchell in the title role of Cervantes' Don Quixote. It is a role Mr. Mitchell seems born to play, with his commanding charisma, his magnificent booming baritone and his considerable acting talents.

The role fits him like a doublet, and Mr. Mitchell brings such richness and depth to the role of Don Quixote, the doddering old fool who believes he is a knight in more chivalrous times, that you feel as though Richard Kiley (who originated the role, the Broadway cast album of which was worn thin by generations of ardent fans) has passed on the mantle and said, "Now it is all yours."

This is not too surprising, given that Mr. Mitchell took on the role of Fred Graham in "Kiss Me, Kate" that had been associated with Alfred Drake and made it wholly his. Watching him playfully mine the rich comedic territory of the egotistical leading man in "Kiss Me, Kate" was a hoot and a holler, but there is something singularly satisfying in his performance as Don Quixote something fine and true.

Mr. Mitchell plays the role larger than life, larger than the wretched state of the world in which he and the other characters find themselves. Even though anyone with a lick of sense can see that Quixote is deluded, there is a noble and ennobling quality about him. You feel like a better person for having known him.

At the same time, Mr. Mitchell makes him shockingly human frail at times, stiff-kneed and with a ticker that is about to go. There is precious little time left, and so many windmills to tilt. This combination of the extraordinary imagination and the mundane limitations of the human body is what makes the portrayal so indelible, so profoundly comic.

Not to mention the song "The Impossible Dream," which Mr. Mitchell begins tenderly, almost as if singing to himself, and then builds to a smashing crescendo that resulted in a standing ovation on opening night.

It was a shivers-inducing moment in a production filled with gorgeous moments. For starters, the set by Paul Brown (aided by Paul Gallo's chiaroscuro lighting) is a jaw-dropping 16th-century Spanish ironwork fantasy as realized by the illustrator M.C. Escher with a bit of the retro-futuristic design from the movie "Brazil" thrown in for effect.

It is a soaring semicircular structure crisscrossed with winding metal staircases, stone steps, wooden platforms and dangling ropes and lanterns. During the course of "La Mancha" it is alternately the prison where Cervantes and his squire, Sancho Panza (Ernie Sabella), find themselves awaiting the Spanish Inquisition and the setting for the "Don Quixote" yarn Cervantes is ordered to tell. At certain points during the show, the upper wall of the subterranean prison slices open to reveal a starry sky, a burning sun, a country road and other manifestations of the outside world.

The set is so ingenious and surprisingly workable, despite a few technical glitches that you feel the cast has to compete sometimes literally; numerous sound-projection problems cropped up opening night.

Happily, the cast is up to the challenge. The chorus and dancers nimbly crawl, swing and climb all over the set as if it were the most natural thing in the world to hang off an enormous, precariously swaying lamp, all the while flinging flower petals as one game cast member did during the mock-heroic production number "Golden Helmet of Mambrino."

Decidedly, deliciously earthbound, however, are the performances by Mr. Sabella and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza. Mr. Sabella, who possesses a self-described big "belly full of aphorisms," is the ideal foil to Quixote's idealism. Practical, laconic, his Sancho is the perfect companion to both fuel his master's fancies and keep his feet on the ground.

What comes shining through, though, is Mr. Sabella's tenderness, his cockamamie love for Quixote that is anything but logical. As seen in his songs "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip," Sancho is savvy enough to realize his boss is crazy, but also wise enough to realize how much fun and excitement Quixote adds to his life.

Miss Mastrantonio is scarily convincing as the tough cookie Aldonza, a scullery maid ill-used by men all her life. Her vibrato nearly wobbles out of control in the song "It's All the Same," in which she bitterly says that men are after only one thing, but she gains control soon enough, and her operatic soprano lends itself to "Aldonza" and "Dulcinea."

Miss Mastrantonio pulls off the hard-bitten aspects of Aldonza so boldly that it is a bit of a stretch when she softens up for the musical's dramatic ending and reprise of "The Impossible Dream."

Mark Jacoby is quite affecting as the Padre, as are Olga Merediz as Quixote's loyal housekeeper and Natascia Diaz as his niece, who is more concerned with appearances than with her uncle's welfare. There is an air of Broadway vet pizazz when the trio joins up for "I'm Only Thinking of Him." There also is a bit of comic sunniness in Jamie Torcellini's cheerfully addled turn as the Barber.

Once the technical glitches are sorted out, "La Mancha" should be able to breathe some more and Mr. Kent will be able to allow the cast to relax and create a flow and smooth pacing. There are times you feel all onstage are holding their collective breath, and this trepidation has the audience on pins and needles, as well. As any musical director can tell you, creating a seamless flow is the hardest thing to do, yet it is the most necessary component if you are to envelop and transport an audience.

"Man of La Mancha" has so many elements in its favor, one can only hope the flow will follow.


WHAT: "Man of La Mancha"

WHEN: Tuesday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.; Sunday evening (Nov. 3 only) 7:30 p.m., through Nov. 10

WHERE: National Theatre, 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW

TICKETS: $47.50 to $77.50; 800/447-7400


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