A funny thing happened to me on the way to this notice. I went to a first night!
It is still a comparatively little-known fact that New York's bravest, the gallant theater critics - all in white tie and tails and looking, apart from Linda Winer and those feisty New Yorker twins, Edith Oliver and Mimi Kramer, like sleek George Sanders wind-up dolls - have not actually attended first nights since 1981. We go to specially designated previews and write at leisure.
Yet on Friday night I found myself at the official first night of the official revival of "Man of La Mancha," at the Marquis Theatre. The celebrities! (I saw Michael York, almost as close as you are to this newspaper and there were lots of others I couldn't actually recognize.) The glamor! Cameras flashing, and men in tuxedos and women drenched with perfumes.
Ah, it brought back the past...so, unfortunately, did the show.
Now if I were a producer like Mitch Leigh I might consider a revival of this very loosely based Cervantes musical "Man of La Mancha" - particularly if, like Mitch Leigh, I had actually composed it! After all, looking back, "Man of La Mancha" has a particular position on Broadway history - in its 1965 way this souped-up version of "Don Quixote" taken from a TV play was a kind of pop opera which the canny British were later to extravaganize into Andrew Lloyd Webber and his kith.
However I would not, unlike Leigh, go the whole hog. I wouldn't simply have reproduced the entire shebang as if it were a partially living waxworks show - with designs still by the late Howard Bay, with choreography unattributed but dimly remembered from that of the late Jack Cole, and the whole production still directed by Albert Marre, who could probably have done it in his sleep, had such been necessary.
No. I would have approached it as if it were, say, "Madama Butterfly." Or "The Mikado." I would have asked someone like Peter Hall, or Trevor Nunn, or Harold Prince, to have started from scratch and staged a "Man of La Mancha" for 1992. Would that have been such an impossible dream?
Meanwhile, we have Leigh's Spanish-tinctured, impressive, sometimes inspiring, heavy on the schmaltz score, a slightly underwhelming vocal performance from Raul Julia in the title role, who nevertheless has a finely calculated glint of madness in his soulful eyes, an oddly genteel Aldonza from pop singer Sheena Easton, and some well-routined performances from a few old "La Mancha" hands, including notably David Holliday as the Innkeeper and David Wasson as the Padre.
If you have seen "Man of La Mancha" before, this might recall happier memories - if you haven't, you might wonder what all the fuss was about.
When it comes to the revival of "Man of La Mancha" at the Marquis Theater, "Forbidden Broadway" was there first. In the latest version of that satiric revue, there is a malicious spoof in which the new Don Quixote strides boastfully on stage and sings, "I am I, Raul Julia," and declares himself as the first Hispanic actor to play the title role. He is followed by a Valley Girl impersonation of Sheena Easton as the lusty Aldonza. Overstatement is a comic essence of "Forbidden Broadway"; it is also no stranger to the sentiments of "Man of La Mancha."
In this production, the show proves to be what it always was: a quasi-inspirational musical about the Spanish Inquisition. It had, and still has, a novelty effect, as it tells a story remote in time and sensibility. A surprise success in 1965, it went on to become one of the longest running musicals and one that is frequently revived. It always seems to attract partisans, most of whom, one would suggest, have never so much as thumbed a copy of "Don Quixote."
The show has not become dated so much as eroded through exposure. It is not a musical that is crying for another revival, but here it is all the same (in several senses), and to deny its popularity would be like tilting with windmills.
At the core of "Man of La Mancha" are three or four hearty anthems (with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion) promoting a post-"Camelot" memory of idealism and uplift. While such noble feelings sound out of sync in cynical times, they still seem to touch responsive heartstrings. Between those songs, there is musical padding, ditties like "I'm Only Thinking of Him" and "A Little Gossip," which would not be out of place in a modern context. The book by Dale Wasserman, mixing "Don Quixote" with a story about the life of Cervantes, reduces the narrative to simplistic terms.
What "Man of La Mancha" had in its original version was Richard Kiley in the title role. His performance made the show seem like a dramatic oratorio and, more than anything, it conjured the spirit of Cervantes. Although Mr. Julia is well suited to the role by reason of his own dramatic and musical presence as well as his Hispanic background, his performance is not transcendent. He offers a lightly shaded variation, effective in the comic sequences, less so in dealing with the character's madness. Part of the difficulty is in his singing voice, which seems more comfortable with the musical challenges of "Nine" and "The Threepenny Opera" than with the arialike demands of "Man of La Mancha."
Mr. Julia is, however, the stalwart center of the revival, which in other respects too often resembles a museum piece rather than anything freshly conceived. The director is Albert Marre, who staged the original production. He must know the show by rote, which is how he has staged it. Missing is an equivalent of Jack Cole's choreography as well as any sense of vibrancy in the musical direction, especially so in the fight scenes. They seem mechanical, as does the abduction of Aldonza.
This brings us to Ms. Easton, a pop singer making her theatrical debut. While she has a sweet voice and conveys a measure of the Dulcinea half of her character, she is not the tempestuous Aldonza, not by a long moonshot. Petite and pretty, she is far removed from anyone born on a dungheap. When she is flung about the stage by the muleteers, a theatergoer may wonder if she will suffer bodily harm. To accept her in this characterization, one would have to be as delusional as the Don himself.
Re-enlisting as Sancho Panza is Tony Martinez, who, the program informs us, has played his role in every major revival of the musical and recently celebrated his 2,000th performance. He is certainly familiar with the idiosyncracies of the character, including the childlike delivery of that song, "I Really Like Him," the number that may have inspired Sally Field's famous Oscar acceptance speech.
In stature and bearing, Mr. Julia and Mr. Martinez are a natural pairing: imposing and tiny, knightly and servile. The other actors are adequate to their roles, and in several instances they are something more. David Wasson, David Holliday and Ted Forlow are all experienced "Mancha" hands, with Mr. Forlow recreating the role of the Barber, which he played at one point in the original production.
At a critics' preview, the show was conducted by Mr. Leigh. Facing an unseen orchestra, the composer seemed to be reliving his impossible dream. Then he left the stage and Mr. Julia began "sallying forth," with one hand gloved (like an early-17th-century Michael Jackson?) and his corkscrew lance raised. As long as there are tickets to be sold, one assumes that the show itself will continue to sally forth.
Even the makeshift lance toted around by the title character of "Man of La Mancha" looks to be weighing heavy these days. And why should it be any different from every other element in this revival?
Despite a few sure-fire songs and a sentimental book that will always find its audience, "La Mancha" hasn't aged with grace. All too obvious are its manipulations, its stop-and-start method of plugging songs into the narrative, even its easy philosophizing. Albert Marre, who staged the 1965 original, has done little if anything to revitalize the tuner.
Treating "La Mancha" as a museum piece has done the work no service. It might be a nice touch, sentimentally, to include so many original cast members in this revival, but it doesn't work so well theatrically. The ensemble only adds to the production's muddied, murky feel.
But even more unfortunate are the lackluster performances by the leads, Raul Julia and Scottish pop diva Sheena Easton.
Julia is oddly lacking in presence, despite standing what looks to be several heads taller than his co-star. There's no poignance in his Don Quixote, and a Don Quixote without poignance is no better than a musical without a star. Vocally, Julia is shaky at best.
Easton is pleasant enough in her less-taxing musical numbers, but her lack of stage experience and technique shows. (Apparently compensating for a weak speaking voice, Easton talks in a register somewhere between Lauren Bacall and Harvey Fierstein.)
Tony Martinez, who has played the role of the faithful servant Sancho in every major production since the first, is a trouper. If his performance too often seems rote, he also provides the production with some emotional resonance.
In the role of the Padre, David Wasson does well, particularly with "To Each His Dulcinea."
Set--a large faux-stone oval that serves as the dungeon floor on which Cervantes weaves his windmill-tilting tale--doesn't quite reach Broadway standards. A large staircase occasionally descends, drawbridge-style, for access to and from the dungeon. Costumes are a bit too studied in their raggedness.
Producer (and composer) Mitch Leigh is touting the revival as a 25 th-anniversary production, although a more accurate count would put the tuner at 27--a bit young to be lying about its age. Or maybe not.