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THEATER REVIEW: “Man Of La Mancha” returns to Cygnet Theatre

Hide the windmills – “Man Of La Mancha” – is back in town.

Dale Wasserman’s 1965 smash hit boasts fabulous music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and a play-within-a-play structure based on the story of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and his most famous character Don Quixote. It ran nearly six years on Broadway – and won five Tony Awards.

Cygnet Theatre presents the beloved musical through Aug. 26, directed by and starring Sean Murray.

You remember the story: Cervantes (Murray) is pitched into a prison holding tank with assorted scurvy types to await trial. Cervantes is not accused of any violent crime, but had the temerity to foreclose on the monastery of La Merced in his job as tax collector. This did not sit well with the Spanish Inquisition.

By prison tradition, every new detainee is tried by his fellow prisoners while awaiting trial. To forestall the threatened burning of his manuscripts for warmth, Cervantes convinces them to join him in acting out the story of Don Quixote (Murray), his chubby squire Sancho Panza (Bryan Barbarin) and the “kitchen slut reeking of sweat” Aldonza (Erika Beth Phillips), whom Quixote imagines to be his highborn lady Dulcinea.

The rest of the prisoners play various parts, including a priest (Kürt Norby), Quixote’s young niece Antonia (Katie Whalley), her stuffy fiance Dr. Carrasco (Jason Maddy), the innkeeper (David Kirk Grant), the housekeeper (Linda Libby), a barber (Justin Warren Martin) and several muleteers.

This show – with its juxtaposition of graphic evidence of the terrible things we to do ourselves and others with a heartrending example of what we might be if only we dared give our better nature free rein – has the ability to reduce an audience to tears.

Unfortunately, this production was too uneven on opening night to do that for me.

On the plus side, the most successful characterizations are Barbarin’s Sancho and Norby’s Padre, both solid, satisfying and well sung.

Katie Whalley is lovely and convincing as Cervantes’ niece Antonia, and David Kirk Grant is also fine, double cast as the Governor and Innkeeper. And the eight-person orchestra (offstage) is fine.

Sean Fanning’s set is fine; Jeanne Reith’s costumes just right, Michelle Caron’s lighting a bit too bright. Colleen Kollar Smith contributed some fine choreography.

Murray (playing this role for the third time) has a take on Don Quixote that seems at odds with the character of that old tilter at windmills. Rather than a slightly dotty Jesus figure, Murray plays him as an early Bill Gates type, determined in this case to “fight for the right” – overtly and noisily – at whatever cost (though unlike Gates, Murray’s Quixote is careful not to hurt innocent people along the way).

Phillips is simply miscast as Aldonza. This pivotal role is enormously demanding, musically and dramatically. Cygnet chose to eliminate the physical dangers of the rape scene (usually played roughly on a table, in plain sight; falling is a possibility) by moving the action offstage, behind a curtain.

Phillips’ lovely, sweet and high voice sounds pretty on the ballad “What Does He Want Of Me?” But the part requires Aldonza to sound as dirty as she looks, especially on “Aldonza.”

Murray and Phillips had pitch problems on opening night.

This isn’t the best “Man Of La Mancha” I’ve seen, but there’s enough good about it to recommend it.

The details

“Man Of La Mancha” plays through Aug. 26 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call 619-337-1525 ext. 3 or visit HERE.