Nilko Andreas and Tony Pulford in “Man of La Mancha.” (Photo by Cory Weaver.)
There is no question that Man of La Mancha—the Don Quixote-themed 1966 Tony-winner for Best Musical that ran on Broadway for five years, and has since been revived there four times, adapted into an Oscar-nominated film, and performed around the world in dozens of languages—is an enduring classic, inspired by a classic. And yet, as the beautifully truehearted rendering currently on Music Theater Heritage’s Main Stage makes clear, it was not quite classic enough.
When MTH Artistic Director Tim Scott, who also directs this production, decided to include the show in his theater’s 20th-anniversary season, he saw a natural opportunity to collaborate with Kansas City’s Ensemble Ibérica, dedicated to the music of Spain and Portugal and its elemental instruments. The result, as Scott promises in his program note and opening-night curtain speech, sounds “more like 16th-Century Spain, and less like 1960s Broadway”—the score expressed through flamenco guitars, classic strings, and hand percussion. The promise delivers: you may have seen and heard Man of La Mancha before, perhaps even multiple times (see above), but not once quite like this.
It begins with the man (of La Mancha) himself. Whereas the show’s creator, Dale Wasserman, conceived the title character as a roving raconteur, Scott has recast him as a flamenco guitarist, and cast the role with Nilko Andreas, a dynamic, New York-based Colombian-American actor and musician who performs regularly at Carnegie Hall, when he’s not touring the world. From the first word and note, his performance feels profoundly authentic and sets the tone. Yet this is very much an ensemble show, and the eight other actors (and quartet of musicians) each command their share of the stage, script, and score.
By the way, Man of La Mancha is not—as Wasserman would often complain—an adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ masterwork or of his life, but an imagined scenario in which a character named Cervantes, awaiting his trial before the Inquisition, holds his fellow prisoners at bay with an impromptu reenactment of the quest of a delusional “knight” named Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza (so, completely different—got it?).
In any event, the story—albeit with plenty of clever dialogue and comedic interludes—is merely the framework that takes us from one memorable musical moment to the next. The score, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, features “The Impossible Dream” and “I, Don Quixote,” of course, but also “Dulcinea,” “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” and others. I last saw this show twenty years ago in its most-recent Broadway revival (with Brian Stokes Mitchell as Cervantes/Quixote), and I had since forgotten how many standards are instantly recognizable.
After seeing (and hearing) this production, I won’t soon forget.
Beyond Andreas’s artistry—his musical interlude with Ensemble Ibérica founder Beau Bledsoe on guitar and percussionist John Currey is only one of many highlights—there are multiple standout performances, particularly from Tony Pulford, as Sancho, and Sicily Mathenia and Izzie Duval in multiple roles. Bradley J. Thomas also provides wonderful support, switching seamlessly from menacing to comic relief.
Though much less embellished than previous productions defined by broad theatrics, MTH’s version is beautifully adorned. The candle-lined stone walls of Sandra Lopez’s set evoke at once the chill of a prison chamber, and the warmth of an inn—the kind of places where tales are told and songs shared. Nancy Robinson’s costumes likewise establish a clear sense of time and locale. The lighting, by Danny Lawrence, also plays an active role, complementing Scott’s energetic staging.
But above all, this production is about the sound (sound design by Gianna Agostino; music direction by Bledsoe), the score resonating as it might have had it existed in Cervantes’ time—which, of course, is its own impossible dream. By embracing a decades-old show, and then leaning into musical traditions that date back centuries, MTH has created something stirring and new.
“Man of La Mancha” runs through October 23 at Music Theater Heritage’s Main Stage (4th Floor) at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call (816) 221-6987 or visit musictheaterheritage.com.