Are a superior performance by Brian Stokes Mitchell and a mesmerizing set by Paul Brown sufficient to propel another revival of “Man of La Mancha” to success on Broadway? Backers of this $6 million mounting had better hope so.
The good news — and it’s darned good — is that the classy Mitchell carries the load fully as the bumbling Don Quixote and his narrator, Cervantes. He offers just the right touch of intensity and irony in a demanding role that requires equal parts pride, defiance, chivalry, determination and vulnerability. This is an extremely intelligent performance destined to win converts before his first note is sung.
And then comes the singing, a booming baritone that establishes firm control in “I, Don Quixote” and “Dulcinea.” It also produces the evening’s single soaring moment, when Mitchell nails his big number, “The Impossible Dream.” It is hard to believe that a song that has supported a generation of lounge singers can still send shivers through an audience, but Mitchell makes it happen.
By comparison, the other principals are not so memorable. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is adequate but not yet distinguished as Aldonza, the whore. Perhaps a little more intensity would help her grow into a role that seems one-dimensional. Ernie Sabella, as servant Sancho, offers a slightly campier treatment of a role defined by Tony Martinez, who played in two productions at the National. Nevertheless, Sabella is enjoyable in the show’s lightest moment, the tune “I Really Like Him.” Mark Jacoby as the Padre and Stephen Bogardus as the grim voice of reality make the most of their small roles.
It’s easy to see where the $6 million went. Brown’s elaborate set is a cylindrical metal contraption that abounds with turntables and movable parts. It is an impressive machine that enables scene changes from a gloomy 16th-century dungeon to a cheery hotel courtyard and other locales. The set is very much the focal point of Jonathan Kent’s careful direction. He has staged the show in one act, as have others, and has kept dancing to a minimum.
Choreographer Luis Perez has left the climactic rape scene to the imagination, allowing an unconscious Aldonza to be carried off after a brief fight, to emerge later in tatters. Quixote’s mock battle with the bad guys is delightful. Another nice touch is a sudden transformation of a broken wagon wheel into a rocking horse, with a handy broom inserted as the tail. It makes a delightful steed for the unwavering knight.
This revival is without a doubt several notches above the version that limped into D.C. 10 years ago with Raul Julia and Scottish pop star Sheena Easton. Certainly “La Mancha” is dated in many respects, and its storyline is occasionally clumsy, but it boasts an engaging score.
One could point to the tiredness of lines like “When life itself is lunatic, who knows where madness lies?” — but that particular sentiment surely resonated with Washington audience on opening night, when the city and its environs were being terrorized by a sniper on the loose.