Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha
By Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. St Jude’s Players (SA). St Jude’s Hall. November 15-24, 2018

St Jude’s Players regularly pack their venue with loyal and enthusiastic patrons and such was the case on the recent opening night of an unusual production for St Jude’s, not its regular fare of drama or comedy, but instead, a musical… in this case, Man of La Mancha.

This 1960s musical is a challenge for even the most musical theatre-experienced company and bravo to the team at St Jude’s and Director Max Rayner for taking up that challenge. It is clear the company has put a lot of resources into it. The return is success on some levels, not quite getting there in terms of other aspects, but a pleasant night out for most, as evidenced by the warm opening night audience reception.

The overall themes of the musical are of innocence and goodness counter-played against the darkness of humankind. Set in Spanish Inquisition times in the late 16th century, this is the story of author, soldier, actor and tax collector Miguel de Cervantes, who languishes in prison along with his manservant. Other prisoners attempt to steal Cervantes’ play manuscript, whereupon he suggests a trial to prove the manuscript’s merits; however, as part of this, his fellow prisoners must take on the roles of characters from the manuscript and enact it. Thus a play within a play begins, with Cervantes becoming an aged dreamer and knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha, who has a squire Sancho Panza, played by Cervantes’ manservant. An impossible dream is pursued within Cervantes’ story, in which chivalrous adventures take place.  

Testament to the effort put into this production, Don Oakley’s set, with its balconies and retractable bridge, uses the small St Jude’s Hall stage to innovative effect. Lighting is good and the follow spots have been ingeniously rigged up. The latter were a little ragged in spotlight positioning at times on opening night, but this will be ironed out, I’m sure.

Due to limitations of the hall and stage, the ‘Band of La Mancha’ is rather small: acoustic guitar, trumpet, acoustic double bass, percussion and keyboard.  Set up on a balcony on stage under the expert guidance of Pat H. Wilson, they do a good job despite this, even if the total effect from this small group cannot possibly back the lyrics in quite such depth as some musical theatre-equipped companies might achieve with more musicians and greater space.

The cast work hard, yet there is mixed success across the board with singing pitch and with acting.

Graham Loveday does good work with a difficult lead role and with equally difficult songs such as “The Impossible Dream”. He also soldiered on wonderfully with some ‘goatee beard’ issues on opening night, never missing a beat.

In the role of Aldonza, Billie Turner has a lovely voice, as in “What Do You Want of Me?” She gives quite a good performance but her inexperience as an actor shows with some lack of nuance in characterisation. On opening night this was particularly evident in the scene in which Aldonza returns after being raped. This difficult scene requires controlled yet impactful and heart-rending work, both in singing voice and acting, but many of Aldonza’s words in the scene were unintelligible, because the interpretation of despair was to shriek.

Wade Shiell’s performance as Sancho Panza is very good, with his acting and singing being very natural.

Generally, the cast does a solid job with the interpretation of their roles, but Director Max Rayner could perhaps have done more with the multi-layered story. This production brings out the comedy elements of the narrative well (hence my initial comment that the production is ‘pleasant’ generally) but does not do as well with the deeper dramatic layers in terms of contrasting the darkness of human nature against the goodness and aspirational elements. An example is the rape scene, which is almost comedic in overall portrayal unfortunately, instead of showing the true brutality of what the male characters bawdily enjoy and obviously believe is okay to do to this woman.

Pace lapsed a little on opening night in the second half, partly due to longish blackouts but no doubt this will pick up.

Costumes are very good, as is the design and execution of props, including animal heads.

Heading into the company’s 70th year in 2019, St Jude’s Players continues to be one of Adelaide’s most successful community theatre groups. Their production of Man of La Mancha may not be all that the many themes could perhaps have delivered, but St Jude’s tireless input has resulted in a show that is still one local theatre goers can happily enjoy.

Lesley Reed

Photographer: Les Zetlein

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