Two scenes, often throwaways not given much care or attention, become hallmarks of Keith Baker’s finely detailed production of “Man of La Mancha” for Bristol Riverside Theater.
One, the choral expression of concern by members of Don Alonso Quijana’s (who has renamed himself as the chivalrous Don Quixote) household for his eccentric ways, “’I’m Only Thinking of Him,” is tantamount to a small stand-alone playlet, as performed gorgeously by Quijana’s niece and next of kin (Lauren Cupples), his housekeeper (Sharon Alexander), and the priest to whom they are confessing (Robert Farruggia).
The trio — possessing some of the best voices in a vocally endowed cast — turn Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh’s song into a comic vignette that brings out its satire and makes it dramatically important to the overall story being adapted from Miguel de Cervantes by Dale Wasserman.
Cupples, Alexander, and Farruggia make you want to listen and savor both the humor and the intent of the segment. Farruggia will establish his character in this number and prove to be one of the singing stars of Baker’s staging, getting unwonted mileage out of another minor song, “To Each His Dulcinea.”
The second instance galvanizes Baker’s “Man of La Mancha” and gives it poignancy, as it would any production of the piece given the care and emphasis Baker and his triple-cast lead (Robert Newman) lavish on a moment so normally neglected, I’d never paid attention to it before.
It is a non-musical sequence that focuses on Newman as Cervantes, rather than his character, Don Quixote. And it allows Baker and Newman to stiffen the backbone of the stage production, one framed with Cervantes presenting a hastily improving a retelling of his now famous story in a Spanish Inquisition prison and trying keep his manuscript from being burned.
Quixote wig doffed, Cervantes is a combination of stunned, moved, relieved, and worried after officers of the Inquisition have entered by lowering a set of impressive but ominous steps and made their presence felt by putting a chill in all the prisoners who might be summoned for trial and “purification” — usually by burning at the stake. Leigh’s lively thrum-tee-tum music stops, as does all activity in the generally raucous cell. Everyone is palpably frightened and nervous about who will meet his or her likely doom.
Baker sets the scene to give it added and warranted tension. As the brightly armored captain descends, you see an auxiliary officer three-quarters of the way up those steps. At the top, you see ranks of Inquisition escort, all draped in blood-red shrouds and hoods that recall our era’s Ku Klux Klan regalia.
Baker has turned the Bristol Riverside atmosphere feverish. Newman seizes the moment after the officers have departed with a blinded prisoner who has a blanket, rather than a hood, over his face and pleads, “No, no” as he’s led away, to launch a heartfelt speech about man’s cruelty to man and the folly of one group sitting in such terrifying judgment of so many others, particularly people who are being persecuted for their religious practices.
Newman is positively Shakespearean as he delivers Cervantes’s sentiments on waste, wonder, and wanton disregard for human life by allegedly pious powers that be. His beautifully and plaintively intoned eloquence give an overriding serious theme and purpose to all the comic fantasy we are seeing in the misadventures of Don Quixote. It puts life, tolerance, and human behavior in a new light. It provides texture that goes beyond the sterling entertainment value Newman and company are giving “Man of La Mancha.”
In addition, it gives some depth to an old warhorse of a musical that isn’t always done with much context or care to do more than present the familiar, emphasize “The Impossible Dream,” and call it a day. Baker treats “Man of La Mancha” and “Don Quixote” as the classics they are. He marries storytelling and entertainment with thematic impact, stirringly enlightening in Newman’s post-Inquisition scene to present a “La Mancha” that expresses thought and commentary while amusing.
Baker is helped by a remarkably versatile cast and a Roman Tatarowicz set that not only features that descending staircase made iconic by Albert Marre’s original 1965 production but seems to dwarf the already intimate Bristol stage and give it the claustrophobic feeling of a crowded dungeon cell while providing enough elevated playing areas at the sides and rear of the stage to give characters a place to roost and Baker the room to create a fine choral sound.
The singing in this production is marvelous. Ironically, it is the leads that have the least remarkable voices. Newman sings well, but his impact is in his acting. Musically, his vocals are sometimes more like sustained speech than sustained notes. No matter. Newman is actor enough to make all of his songs count and his opening number, “Dulcinea,” and “Impossible Dream” hit their mark.
On opening night Tamra Hayden as Aldonza went jarringly from chest to head voice but, again, performed her overall part with distinction. Danny Rutigliano as Sancho and Christopher Marlowe Roche as Carrasco were the most reliable singers of the focal cast. The supporting cast made the music special, particularly Cupples, Dwayne Washington, who raises “Little Bird” to lilting beauty, Dwayne Thomas, who takes comic delight in dubbing Don Quixote a knight, and Julian Brightman as the barber.
Don’t get the impression Newman or Hayden fail Baker as singers. Their job is characterization, and they perform it adroitly. Newman is particularly canny in the masterful way he conveys Quixote as a character Cervantes is using to impress his leery fellow prisoners and can make him broad and histrionic while settling into total sincerity and granting Quixote pure center stage when a scenes warrants.
Hayden deftly brings out the various sides of Aldonza, including her succumbing when enticed to Don Quixote’s charms. As a singer, her high ranges are lovely and duly dramatic. Thomas and Roche also impress with their acting.
Ryan O’Gara’s lighting with its shadows, pinpoints of light, and moodiness is like an extra character in Baker’s production. Stephen Casey’s choreography brightens and gives sweep to some passages. All contribute to Baker’s thoughtful, well-conceived staging that show why “Man of La Mancha” is both beloved and a classic.
Man of La Mancha, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Wednesdays through Sundays through June 5. $43 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.