Review: ‘Man of La Mancha,’ still tilting

 Maria Konstantinidis and Peter Schmitz in Act II Playhouse's production of 'Man of La Mancha' (Photo courtesy of  Bill D'Agostino)

Maria Konstantinidis and Peter Schmitz in Act II Playhouse's production of 'Man of La Mancha' (Photo courtesy of Bill D'Agostino)

Marching into hell for a heavenly cause has its problems – too many heavenly causes turn out to be not altogether divine.

So it’s a good idea for that brilliant madman, Don Quixote, to come calling from time to time to at least encourage some personal sense of idealism.

Along the way in the musical “Man of La Mancha,” Quixote tells us the attributes of a good knight. You must be “brave, courteous, affable, generous, bold and efficient.” Several of these may be mandatory not just for knights, but also for audiences, a possibility clear to me at times as I watched the musical play out at Act II Playhouse in Ambler.

That’s because Aaron Cromie’s production is a lot like Quixote himself: uneven and passionate. Despite its flaws, the passion wins out in the end, carrying this “Man of La Mancha” through – there’s a growing intensity about the way the performers deliver the play within a play, and an equally budding charm. I’m not surprised that the show’s been extended two weeks, and now runs into June.

Still, I have to be honest: The music’s the problem. The cast – many of whom double as the on-stage orchestra led forcefully by guitarist Christopher Colucci — is only fair in the music department, which calls for broad vocal ranges in a story told largely in song.  

Peter Schmitz is a strikingly vulnerable Don Quixote and an even more pitiable Miguel de Cervantes, Quixote’s creator. In the higher ranges that call for power decibels, Schmitz stands out; in the lower, more quiet ones, he falters and can be off-key. Maria Konstantinidis is Dulcinea – the object of Quixote’s devotion – and she has an earthy, take-no-prisoners air about her that works. She and Schmitz have opposite singing strengths: In the lower singing ranges, Konstantinidis stands out; in the higher-range, emphatic moments, she falters and can be off-key.

The orchestra and the cast, in the matinee I saw this week, were also only close to the same key in spots during some passages – a problem that demonstrates how brass back-up can sometimes cover musical blemishes in the theater. This production has no brass in its orchestration and so we get, more or less, an acoustic version of the show.  

The balance here is in the storytelling – there’s much fine acting in this “Man of La Mancha,” beginning with its two lead players, then Sonny Leo as Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza, and down through the supporting cast members, who include Brian Anthony Wilson (always a commanding presence), Jake Blouch and Matt Tallman.

“Man of La Mancha” premiered on Broadway in 1965, with a book by Dale Wasserman and a score by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh, and then won the best-musical Tony Award. It was a time in America when the thought of tilting at windmills was fast becoming a concern; the United States would spend $20 billion in Vietnam that year, with a force of 180,000 soldiers there. Even during the show’s early Broadway revivals – there’ve been four – the connection was fresh.

Nowadays, with so many windmills around, it’s hard for an idealist — deluded like Quixote or not — to figure out which ones are worth the tilt. And “Man of La Mancha” itself now seems a tad overbearing. “The Impossible Dream” is a great song and now a standard, but by the fourth time the lyrics are quoted, you may feel abused.

I’m happy that Act II takes the musical on, in any case. There’s a sad innocence about “Man of La Mancha,” and a message about determining the right way to behave. Plus, the intimacy of Act II is perfect for a show set in a 16th-century dungeon in Seville as the Inquisition outside rips life apart. Maura Roche’s set design is just right, as are Alisa Sickora Kleckner’s imaginative costumes. And James Leitner’s subdued lighting gives the show, in which prisoners act out the various parts of the Quixote story, a real sense of isolation. A good place to have Quixote kicking around in our minds.“Man of La Mancha” runs through June 8 at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, 56 E. Butler Ave. 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org

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