Manatee Players' version of 'Man of La Mancha' still packs a punch

mclear@bradenton.comMarch 22, 2014 

The story's 500 years old, the musical's 50.

But "Man of La Mancha" can still pack an emotional wallop.

The new production from Manatee Players reminds how powerful the songs and the story of the durable musical can be, thanks mostly to a charismatic lead performance, a consistently strong cast and solid direction and choreography.

But the staging is not without some severe weaknesses, mostly technical, that temper its effect.

During Saturday's performance, the primary, and nearly constant, problems were with the sound. The pit orchestra often drowned out the singers, rendering whole lines inaudible and entire verses unintelligible. Even chunks of dialogue were hard to hear and understand.

And when the actors and singers could be understood, the microphones gave their voices an artificial sound that was often annoying.

The lighting was generally OK, but in a couple key scenes it was distracting. One fight scene is lighted with strobes, which feel uncomfortably out of place in a scene set in a 17th-century dungeon. And the show's pivotal mirror scene -- admittedly, a difficult one to stage -- is lighted with awkwardly timed blackouts that mute its power.

But even after it's been muted, there's still plenty of power left in this show and this production.

They main reason the show works is the lead performance of Robert Austin. He's a commanding presence on the stage but has enough frailty in his characterization that he's simultaneously heroic and tragic.

(The story, as most people know, centers on an aging and mentally infirm man who imagines himself to be a chivalrous knight in an age where chivalry is dead, and who sees beauty, grandeur and adventure in every situation.)

By far the show's most famous song is "The Impossible Dream." It's now overly familiar, and often parodied, so it's easy to forget how inspiring it can be. Austin reminds of us of that with his rendition, sung with a strong voice by a weakening character. As the subdued melody starts to soar, we get the sense that he's gradually persuading himself to persevere, not merely declaring that he will.

The other standout performance comes from Eve Caballero as Aldonza, whom Quixote wrongly sees as the embodiment of female virtue. But there are no poor performances in the large cast.

On the design end, Donna Buckalter's set -- an Inquisition dungeon -- is technically impressive and beautiful in its dreariness.

Other than "Impossible Dream," there's really only one song ("Dulcinea") in "Man of La Mancha" that's truly great. But this is a rare musical that's more about its narrative than its music. That story, and the performance in the Manatee Players production, make this spotty staging very worthwhile.

Details: Runs through April 6 in Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 3rd Ave, W., Bradenton. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets run $27 to $37. To buy tickets or get more information, call 941-748-5875 or go to www.manateeplayers.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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