Review: Forge’s ‘Man of La Mancha’ Shares Timeless Message

Man of La Mancha" has a June 2-25 run at Forge Theatre.

“Man of La Mancha” has a June 2-25 run at Forge Theatre, starring Nicole Napolitano and Carey Rumpf.

by J.S. Alleva

The morning after Forge Theatre’s Man of La Mancha opened, an azalea bush in my yard, its flowers long since withered and brown, yielded a large dose of reality and a gentle touch of magic, much like Forge’s performance.  Among the shriveled blooms of the aging azalea was one bright magenta blossom–fresh, earnest and full of hope, like the story of Man of La Mancha which blooms anew at Forge. If you catch this show before it closes on June 25, you’ll understand why dreaming impossible dreams is always worth the effort.

Written in 1964, Man of La Mancha is a play within a play, based on both the real-life author of “Don Quixote” (the talented and oft-imprisoned Miguel de Cervantes,) and the hero of the book itself, a ‘mad’ knight compelled to follow a quest. In Man of La Mancha, the fictionalized Cervantes, nervously awaiting the 16th century Spanish Inquisition, weaves Don Quixote’s colorful tale for his fellow prisoners, using them as performers in his play. And playing the knight-errant himself, Cervantes buys precious time before his trial, and inspires almost everyone he meets along the way.

Man of La Mancha features some of the most rhythmically-challenging songs ever written for the stage. The show’s orchestra, directed by Denise Wisnieski, holds their own with its complex score.  Directed by Marnie Herzfeld and stage managed by Linda Blystone, the show presses a cast of widely-ranging talent toward a single goal, much like Quixote’s quest.  And what some cast members lack in vocal prowess, they make up for with enthusiasm, heart and verve.

The lead role of Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana demands depth of character and vocal agility to shoulder the show’s timeless numbers, “Dulcinea” and “The Impossible Dream.”  Carey Rumpf’s portrayal captures the pure heart and earnestness of a common man with an uncommon dream.  When he transforms himself onstage and speaks with the fullness of Don Quixote’s passion, his talent shines most brightly, and his reaction to the Knight of the Mirrors is heart-crushingly genuine.

Quixote’s compadre, Sancho Panza, is played adorably, and effectively, by Brian Schwartz, whose effortless tenor in “I Like Him” and “A Little Gossip” adds a light touch to an often-dark story.  Aldonza (Nicole Napolitano), the self-professed “casual bride for the murdering scum of the earth’ has the most vocally-challenging songs of all in “It’s All the Same,” “What Does He Want of Me,” and the biographical “Aldonza.”  Napolitano, whose costume is at times one lean shy of a wardrobe malfunction, makes an impressive transformation as the embittered woman, disillusioned by cruel men, whose heart slowly opens in the face of disarming kindness.

A major standout for this show is Nathaniel Swofford, whose rendering of the kindly Padre provides the show’s humanity, radiating true compassion and urging leniency from the doctor determined to rid the ‘knight’ of his false armor.  Swofford’s moving treatment of “To Each His Dulcinea” is a philosophical and musical high point of the show.

Strong performances by Scott Coonradt (Governor/Innkeeper), Tom Groves (Duke/Dr. Carrasco), Melisse Weber (Housekeeper), Ann Kashishian (Antonia), and JT Grosch (Barber) add color and energy.  Weber’s and Kashishian’s voices resonate beautifully with Swofford’s in the revealing “I’m Only Thinking of Him.”

Rounding out the cast are muleteers and prison mates (Tom Aberant, Ryan Edmonds, Joseph Beregi, Tim Courtney, Bill Thomer, Kim Edmonds, Eric Duran) who move fluidly between scenes and character changes, supporting the storyline, and adding welcome harmonies to favorites “Little Bird” and “The Impossible Dream.” Moorish belly dancing is provided by Mary (Mira) DiGennaro, Andrea Holtman and Renee von Mechow.

The set, supervised by John Magolan, is bare-bones, with two grey walls forming a sturdy ‘stone’ backdrop and a single, central door. Two wooden benches and a narrow table serve the scenic changes between prison, inn, and church.  Lighting design by Jeff Sugzdinis is subtle and appropriate throughout.  Choreography by Renee Schultz, Mary DiGennaro (belly dance), and Steve Reazor (fight scenes) is straightforward and utilizes the full space of the stage, giving a variety of vantages for the audience. The program does not mention a Costume Designer, but the well-sculpted (if a bit too clean) peasant costuming uses a nice blend of neutrals to complement the mood of the show.

Forge’s production of Man of La Mancha works earnestly to tackle a very complex vocal score and to ponder the eternal conundrum of “which is best?” Should we accept reality as it appears, or should we view it as it could be, dream of a nobler world, and by sheer audacity and strength of spirit, create it?

This show is performed without intermission. Book by Dale Wasserman, Lyrics by Joe Darion, and Music by Mitch Leigh.

If you go: remaining dates are:  Fri June 9 @ 8pm; Sat June 10 @ 8pm; Sun June 11 @ 2pm; Fri June 16 @ 8pm; Sat June 17 @ 8pm; Fri June 23 @ 8pm; Sat June 24 @ 8pm; Sun June 25 @ 2pm.  Tickets $18 adults, $15 under 18.  https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=forge

GREAT NEWS: the theatre’s A/C unit has been replaced, eliminating sound disruptions and keeping the climate comfortable. As summer approaches, this will be a welcome ‘boon’ for theatregoers.

For more info on this and upcoming shows, contact: Forge Theatre, 241 First Avenue, Phoenixville, PA For reservations, call 610-935-1970 or visit forgetheatre.org.