MAN OF LA MANCHA: Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre Review

ABET opened “Man of La Mancha,” winner of five Tony Awards, on March 9, 2018, which will remain on stage though March 25. The musical was written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. For reservations call (904) 249-7177 or visit abettheatre.com.

Two separate sets of people are reading this review. The first set includes all those who have never seen the 1965 musical, which ran for over 2,300 performances after making its way to Broadway. You need to know a bit about the plot.

The musical is based on a novel by Miguel de Cervantes titled “Don Quixote,” first published in 1605. The structure is that of a play within a play, as Cervantes and his squire are imprisoned while awaiting a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition. (Cervantes knew something about prisons, having previously been jailed twice because of financial troubles). The other prisoners gleefully set about holding a mock trial, planning to find him guilty and seize his possessions as punishment. Cervantes presents his defense in the form of a play, where he portrays Alonso Quijana, an aging nobleman who has set reality aside to become the formidable Don Quixote de La Mancha, and his fellow prisoners are assigned other roles. His story becomes an inspiration to pursue our personal quests with courage, optimism, dedication, and unfailing chivalry. The story is engrossing and will hold you spellbound.

The second set of readers of this review have seen “La Mancha” and may perhaps refer to it as “The Impossible Dream musical” due to the fame of its inspirational signature song. If you’re wondering whether this current production captures the magic of past performances, the answer is yes, yes, yes! It is one of best we have seen throughout the years.

First things first: the set was astonishing. ABET’s entire stage was initially transformed into a replica of a stone dungeon; the design and construction required a massive team effort.

A must for “La Mancha” is a strong portrayal of the main character, and ABET’s Cervantes/Don Quixote comes to life in the hands of Bill Ratliff, who has an excellent singing voice; you get the feeling that Cervantes’ complex protagonist is reliving his heroic quest on stage in Atlantic Beach. Bill has appeared in a number of musicals on local stages during the past thirty years, which have included “The Fantasticks,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and “Anything Goes,” just to name a few. He is also well known for his definitive portraits of historical figures such as Lyndon Johnson, Oscar Wilde, King Henry II, and Salieri.

Actor Gary Baker is Sancho, Quixote’s devoted protective sidekick, who provides much of the comedy in the show. Quixote refers to him as “A fat little sack filled with proverbs.” His rendition of “A Little Gossip” is hilarious.

The lovely Isabella Martinez is perfect for the role of the fiery and curvaceous Aldonza. She is a Jacksonville University sophomore, and is having a fantastic year on local stages with recent appearances in “American Idiot,” “A New Brain,” and “Urinetown.”

The remaining eight actors play a variety of roles and are an exceptionally skilled supporting cast, doubling as prisoners and characters in Quixote’s episodic quest sequences. And yes, there are some phenomenal voices in the show.

Newcomer Kimberly Barry’s appearance as Antonia/Fermina is her first stage appearance in Jacksonville. She brings a well-trained operatic voice, and has appeared in a number of musicals in other venues. Carole Banks as Maria/Housekeeper has appeared in many musicals at the Alhambra, the Jacksonville Symphony, and Theatre Jacksonville. Bill White, who has appeared in many shows in various Jacksonville venues, is especially funny here as the innkeeper who performs the ceremonial dubbing confirming Quixote’s knighthood. Jonathan Leonard as the Padre/Barber/Muleteer sings several songs with his powerful and beautiful beautiful voice.

Actor Bryce Cofield in his debut at ABET as the Duke and Knight of Mirrors has a more serious role here than in many of his previous local appearances, which have included Eddy in “The Rocky Horror Show,” Jake in “The Evil Dead,” and Shrek in “Shrek The Musical.” David Medina as Anselmo/Muleteer is an actor we have watched grow up on stage at the Foundation Academy in Jacksonville Beach; as a singer/songwriter he has developed a fine singing voice. Kerry Burke-McCloud as Pedro/Muleteer made his theater debut at Theatre Jacksonville in “Tea and Sympathy.” Lauren Cook makes her ABET debut in this show as the Moorish Dancer; she was also the choreographer. She previously appeared at Players By the Sea in “Sentences” as an ensemble member.

Director Lee Hamby provided excellent casting and direction for the production. He is much sought after when it comes to musical theatre and has been in many shows as a performer (including a previous appearance in “La Mancha” at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre as the barber). Lee is immersed in theatre; he is the Managing Director (and one of the founders) of The 5 & Dime Theatre Company.

Erin Barnes was the Musical Director and on piano; the remarkable band included Greg Balut (bass), Alexander Hernandez (woodwinds), Lee Wolf (bass), and Tony Fidyk (percussion).

Fight Chorographer Bryce Cofield was really at the top of his game in staging the fight scene between Quixote and the Muleteers. Costumer Amy Hancock added interesting historic fashion to the setting; the armor and garments of the Knight of the Mirrors were especially cleverly presented.

The music is captivating and you will be surprised how well you know most of the songs. The ultimate song “The Impossible Dream,” is the one that is absolutely magic.

The production team included Lee Hamby (Director), Erin Barnes (Music Director), Lauren Cook (Choreography), Bryce Cofield (Fight Choreography), Janelle Rosko Jones (Stage Manager), Lloyd Jones (Back Stage Crew), Bryan Frank (Light/Sound Design), and Gordon Frank (Light/Sound Tech).

Well, our hearts are peaceful and calm because we have completed the glorious quest of explaining why you should see this marvelous production of “Man of La Mancha.” Don’t miss it; it was last done in Jacksonville at the Alhambra in 2014, and it might be a while before you have an opportunity to see it again.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.
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