Take Back the Knight

The Windmills of Your Mind: Ernie Sabella, left, as Sancho and Brian Stokes Mitchell as the chivalrous Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha.Photo: Joan Marcus

Is there another hit musical of as little musical interest as Man of La Mancha? Mitch Leigh, the composer, made his fortune in jingles, and the songs, with Joe Darion’s earnestly plodding lyrics, suffer from malnutrition, similarity nearly to the point of interchangeability, and a strong sense of being ground, churned, sweated out, the muse having turned her back on the music. The marginally better numbers—the all-rhythm, no-melody title song, the vaporous “Dulcinea,” the barnstorming “The Impossible Dream”—are reprised to death; the others are either tuneless or organ-grinderish, with “Little Bird, Little Bird” offensively cute. The gimmick on which Dale Wasserman based the show’s book has the imprisoned Cervantes wooing the goodwill of his hostile fellow inmates by acting out the story of his yet-unpublished masterpiece in a kind of monkey trial before the unseen real trial by the Inquisition commences. The Cervantes story huffs and puffs to blend significantly with the Quixote story, of whose tragicomic grandeur little here survives. Everything feels hurried, reductive, oversimplified—a huge, sprawling novel resistant to being squeezed into two hours.

The director, Jonathan Kent, of London’s Almeida Theatre, does show imagination; so does his set designer, Paul Brown. The sixteenth-century Spanish dungeon, in whose putative common room the action unfolds, is grandly conceived as an enormous, rusty honeycomb, descended into by a seemingly endless spiral stairway that can break up into parts or, like the whole set, rotate on its axis. That set can also split horizontally to reveal various landscapes, or put sundry apertures to use as windows or doors. One of its quasi-metallic walls can even come crashing down like a giant Murphy bed to provide a multipurpose platform. There is also more Hispanicism in this production than usual, but even so, the Great White Way remains a bit of a gringo.

Whoever remembers Albert Marre’s original production may admire Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Don, but will miss Richard Kiley’s. Mitchell sings commandingly but dodders rather too much as Quijano-Quixote, and lacks the suave magic of Kiley’s Cervantes. The wonderful Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio looks and acts compelling as Aldonza-Dulcinea, but it doesn’t come as naturally to her as it once came to Joan Diener, who also sang much better. Ernie Sabella is a solid, almost overripe Sancho; the others perform their modest pensums in workmanlike fashion. But La Mancha is munchies: something to chew on but hardly a gourmet meal.

Long ago, that fine actor Paul Newman magisterially made the transition from stage to screen; after many years, the reverse transition seems harder to negotiate. As the Stage Manager in the Westport Country Playhouse revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, he misses by a country mile, acting as if a microphone hovered over his head and a multitasking camera comfortingly confronted him. Perfectly gauged to the screen’s requirements, his micro-performance is too insubstantial for the stage.

This Our Town is decidedly too lackluster for our town. Frank Converse, customarily convincing, here bluntly hammers in Dr. Gibbs’s lines. Jayne Atkinson is persuasive as Mrs. Gibbs, but Jane Curtin, after a promising start, does not go anywhere with Mrs. Webb, and the good Jeffrey De Munn is rather too florid as Editor Webb. As the young lovers, Ben Fox is a too lummoxy George, and Maggie Lacey an adequate but unpoetic Emily. Stephen Spinella gets the subtext of the alcoholic organist right simply by giving his standard performance; the rest are either too obvious or too trivial. James Naughton is surely a better actor than, as here, director. Surprisingly, the excellent Tony Walton does much less than his best by trying to do too much with the set, though, to be sure, a play in which mime and simulation preponderate leaves little room for a designer. Richard Pilbrow’s lighting, however, does its job. But something is lacking throughout, and not entirely from the play’s overexposure. I think Wilder miscalculated in mixing sassy stylization with down-home realism, then switching to rather facile fantasy. There is a problem with almost all of Wilder’s theater: a certain complacency verging on smugness, an avuncular irony that smacks of condescension.

Once upon a time, a show called SPOON River Anthology was a kind of play with music. Popular with others, it did not for me coalesce into drama, and left me forever suspicious of “plays with music.” We get one such in Crowns. The actress-director-playwright Regina Taylor has taken Michael Cunningham’s book of photographs of black women in their spunkily hypertrophic churchgoing hats, accompanied by Craig Marberry’s oral histories of the women, and added an ad hoc plot of her own contrivance. With mostly traditional spirituals, she has fashioned an exuberant play with music—that left me unmoved. The story is utterly predictable: Brooklyn teenage girl with no use for hats or church is transplanted to the South, where she learns to love both, and to prefer spirituals to rap. She gets a grandmotherly guide and meets other highly colorful women in their millinery splendor, all full of crusty comments and wryly acted anecdotes. But a half-dozen performers purveying numerous sketchy figures remain fragments rather than compelling characters, and the Brooklyn girl is a mere cliché.

Some good things obtain. The resourceful Lawrence Clayton, who deftly personates a sizable contingent of men, sings one of the few nonspirituals, Sam Cooke’s rousing “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” with irresistible ardor. David Pleasant, one of the two musicians, plays some twenty odd but fetching instruments with what feels like at least twenty irrepressible hands; he’s the real show. Riccardo Hernández’s set has columns of lavish hats rise cheerfully skyward, and Robert Perry lets his gaudy lights rip. I don’t care for Carmen Ruby Floyd as the novitiate, but I do for the five other actresses, especially for Ebony Jo-Ann and Lillias White, as long as she doesn’t sing. Taylor’s staging is appropriately giddy, and triumphs even over Ronald K. Brown’s rudimentary choreography.

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Man of La Mancha
Revival of the musical, starring Brian Stokes Mitchell.
Our Town
Revival of the play, starring Paul Newman.
Written and staged by Regina Taylor.

Take Back the Knight