Community theater truly is an animal entirely unto itself. Each show is the result of a handful of passionate and dedicated amateurs giving their spare time and energy – over and above the hours they put into work and family – to mount a production for their friends, family and members of their town and surrounding area. For the most part, they don’t do it for money (at least, they didn’t in any production I was ever a part of), but rather for a love of storytelling and performance.
Needless to say, in an environment such as this, some plays are better suited to the trappings of community theater than others. As far as I’m concerned, Man of La Mancha, recently mounted by Westerly’s Granite Theatre, might be one of the very best.
Man of La Mancha is the story of Don Quixote, told through the eyes of its author, Miguel Cervantes. As the show opens, Cervantes is thrown into a prison awaiting his trial with the Spanish Inquisition. The other inmates immediately ransack his belongings, which doesn’t bother him too much until they grab a manuscript (for the story of Quixote).To prevent them from burning it, he begins to perform it, casting prisoners in the various roles as they come up. In this manner, he stages his fictional rendering of a gentle man attempting to make his world a better place despite many forces trying to stop him, while simultaneously taking on that same role and circumstance in his own life.
There are several aspects of this musical (one of my very favorite in the world) that make it such a great choice for community theater:
- The rough-around-the-edges framework – When we first meet the ensemble, they are introduced as cutpurses and murderers who immediately attack Cervantes. While they do eventually meld into the characters they ultimately play in Don Quixote, we are never unaware that they are prisoners, essentially entertaining themselves until they learn their real-life fate. Because of this, Man of La Mancha can survive a little “roughness” in its execution. In other words, while the actors playing their roles are all working as hard as they can to do a good job, a missed line or off note here or there can actually add to the charm of the overall production.
- The confined set – Due to limited space, manpower, and resources, the death knell of many a community theater production is the time it takes to change sets and locations. Forcing audiences to sit in the dark as the crew frantically switches over from Kansas to Oz not only takes them out of the show, but adds to the run time of shows that already clock at over two hours of pure content. However, just as Cervantes is forced to create a play out of the people and props he has at his disposal, so too does the theater that mounts La Mancha. In forcing set designers to get creative, it leads to a streamlined show that seamlessly shifts from moment to moment.
- The vocal ranges – While there are some shows that demand its leads have extraordinary vocal dexterity, Man of La Mancha keeps its songs firmly within a given singer’s range. This does not mean that the songs aren’t great, or that the performers don’t have ample opportunities to shine, but rather that the songs for a baritone singer never stray out of baritone range, and so on. This makes it far easier to cast performers who can do the parts (and the songs) justice.
All of these traits make Man of La Mancha a strong choice for a local production, but without the talents and passions of the people involved, it still wouldn’t work. Luckily, Granite Theatre has pulled together an impressive ensemble and crew to provide an engaging and engrossing rendition of this truly fantastic piece.
It is clear from the first moments of the show that the cast loves the play as much as many of us in the audience do, and while the entire set of “prisoners” should be proud of their performances, this show rests squarely on the shoulders of the three leads. As Cervantes/Quixote, Robert Grady deftly switches from innocent madman to wily poet, with a lovely singing voice that more than capably handles the show’s most famous songs (his rendition of “The Impossible Dream” led to show-stopping applause at my performance). George Sanchez offers up a fun and entertaining comic relief as the squire Sancho. And as the besieged barmaid Aldonza (easily the hardest part in the show), Jessica Gates gives a powerful and impressive performance, both with her character work and her singing voice.
Technically, this production did everything just right. Costume designers Beth Jepson and Paula Brouillette (with help from Pierre Costumes) did a great job outfitting a group of prisoners that could be transformed to new roles in seconds with a single garment or prop. And a special shout out should be given to set designer David Jepsen for crafting a malleable space that morphed to fit every scene, as well as a truly impressive drawbridge that provided the iconic final image of the show.
Of course, no show is perfect, and this production had its minor flaws to go along with its triumphs. The production I saw suffered from some audio feedback, as well as several instances of performers mixing up verses in their songs (a slip-up that could probably go unnoticed in a lesser-known musical, but stuck out a bit in this case). However, Man of La Mancha can survive blips like this, and I have every reason to believe that both issues will resolve themselves in subsequent performances.
If you’re looking to see a group of passionate artists stage a truly exceptional play (the very definition of community theater), then look no further than Man of La Mancha at Granite Theatre.
Granite Theatre presents Man of La Mancha Oct 18 – Nov 10. 1 Granite St, Westerly; 401-596-2341. For tickets, visit granitetheatre.com