‘Man of La Mancha’: Ageless show delivers fresh talent, energy

Now at the Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall, this new production delivers all the goods, led by with three sterling stars including locally trained singer/actress Amber Iman.

Man of La Mancha Cast
The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Man of La Mancha, directed by Alan Paul. (Photo by Scott Suchman.)

WASHINGTON, March 27, 2015 – “Man of La Mancha” is a muscular musical that boasts 25 vocal and ensemble songs performed over just an hour and a half accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra led by a classical-style conductor to set just the right mood and atmosphere.

La Mancha principals.
Nehal Joshi as Sancho. Anthony Warlow as Don Quixote, and Amber Iman as Aldonza in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Man of La Mancha,” directed by Alan Paul (Photo by Scott Suchman.)

Currently being staged at Sidney Harman Hall, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of this classic doesn’t pull any punches. This show delivers all the goods, led by three sterling stars, including locally trained singer/actress Amber Iman. She nearly stole the show, radiating a strength of character and emotional depth that easily matched or surpassed the power of this show’s predominantly male cast.

The original 1965 Broadway production of “La Mancha” ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tonys, including Best Musical. The show has been revived four times on Broadway, becoming one of the most enduring works of musical theatre in history.

In STC’s revival, energetic Australian leading man Anthony Warlow, who made his Broadway debut in the recent revival of “Annie,” is the headline performer.

According to the show’s director Alan Paul, “[Warlow’s] musical theatre and operatic background is exceptional and he brings tremendous power to the iconic role of Don Quixote, and I look forward to working with Anthony and hearing him put his stamp on ‘The Impossible Dream.’” Paul, of course, was alluding to “La Mancha’s” inspirational signature song, one that defines this musical down to the last thought, feeling and note.

But it is the selection of the other two principal performers, Iman as Aldonza — the woman of ill repute whom Quixote transforms into the lovely Dulcinea; and Nehal Joshi, who delivers a sensationally comic and energetic performance as his squire and manservant Sancho Panza — who define this production as well as STC’s commitment to diversity, which includes and discovering and grooming new talent to complement the stars this company always brings to Washington audiences.

Based on Miguel de Cervantes novel “Don Quixote, “Man of La Mancha” features a score composed by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion from Dale Wasserman’s book. Inspired by Cervantes’ masterful novel, the show relates the classic, picaresque adventures of the deluded and perhaps mad knight, Don Quixote, as a play within a play, performed by Cervantes himself and his fellow prisoners. He and they are incarcerated in a Spanish prison as he awaits a hearing before the dreaded Spanish Inquisition.

The story takes place in the late 16th century, when Miguel de Cervantes, an aging soldier/actor turned tax collector has been thrown into an underground dungeon by the Inquisition for making the unthinkable mistake of foreclosing on a monastery. To frame the story and this production, well known scenic designer Allen Moyer has crafted a dark and forbidding two-story prison with a trap door and torture wheel.

This setting actually becomes the other main focal point of the play as it unfolds, guiding the audience on an imaginary journey through battlefields fraught with giant dragons, an inn and chapel where the wayward Cervantes seeks to be knighted.

But there they are attacked by their fellow prisoners, who instantly set up a mock trial and begin to divvy up their possessions. If Cervantes is found guilty, he will have to hand over all his possessions packed in a traveling trunk. Cervantes agrees to do so, except for a precious manuscript, which the prisoners are all too eager to burn. He asks to be allowed to offer a defense, and the defense will be a play, acted out by him and all the prisoners. The “judge,” a sympathetic criminal called “the governor,” agrees, and the central tale of Don Quixote gets under way.

What paces this popular musical are the classic and memorable songs “Dulcinea,” “The Impossible Dream,” “What Does He Want of Me,” “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and “To Each His Dulcinea,” which showcase the vocal talents of Anthony Warlow and the unexpected range and power of Amber Iman, a Howard University BFA graduate, who perform in 17 of the 25 songs that make up the heart and soul of the musical, including four of the most memorable solos or duets.

After working Off-Broadway in a productions of “Rent” and “A Civil War Christmas,” the 27-year-old Iman made a smashing Broadway debut as the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, in “Soul Doctor.”

She also created a TV reality show for BroadwayWorld.com, called “UNEMPLOYED AND WORKING!” The new series follows Iman, who moved to New York with $20 in her purse, a pair of well-worn suitcases and big dreams, ready to launch a brilliant career in theater, after first taking a pilgrimage to her home town of Atlanta after graduation.

Dulcinea and cast.
Dulcinea and cast members, “Man of La Mancha.” (Photo credit: Scott Suchman)

“Amber Iman has the smoky voice of an angel,” tweeted Caroline Petti after the show, and that pretty well sums up her performance in “La Mancha.” In addition to this break-out role as Aldonza, originally performed by legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren in the film adaption of the show, Iman also sings with Darius Smith in “Soup In The Key of Chocolate” at 54 Below, New York’s version of the Bohemian Caverns.

For his part, Anthony Warlow, as Cervantes, magically transforms himself into Don Quixote as he takes out a makeup kit from his trunk, with his manservant helping him get into a costume.

In a few short moments, Cervantes has morphed into Alonso Quijana, an old gentleman who has read so many books of chivalry that he has lost his mind, now believing he must go forth into the world as a questing knight-errant. Renaming himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, he sets out to seek adventures with his faithful “squire,” Sancho Panza, played with comic delight by Fairfax, Va., native Nehal Joshi, a Broadway veteran with numerous credits including “The Boys of Syracuse” and “Les Misérables” and cable TV credits on HBO’s “The Wire.”

It’s the youthful energy of Nehal Joshi and Amber Iman that complements veteran actor Warlow, lifting this musical off the page and into the audience’s heart, inspired all the way by the creative genius of 30-year-old director Alan Paul, yet another local product, hailing from Potomac, Md. He worked his way up the ladder from serving as an intern at Arena Stage to a shot at directing “The Boys From Syracuse” at STC in 2012.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company is not afraid to showcase new emerging acting and directing talent. That’s amply displayed in this production, as evidenced by their casting of strong Latino actors such as Caesar Barajas as Pedro; Rayanne Gonzales as the nnkeeper’s wife; Robert Mammana as the duke; JP Moraga as the dance captain; James Hayden Rodriguez as Jose; and Martin Sola as the padre. This supporting cast gives the musical an authentic Iberian ethnic flavor that complemented the senior talent of Dan Sharkey as the governor and James Konicek as the captain of the Inquisition.

This energetic, enjoyable and inspirational Washington production only runs through April 26 at Sidney Harmon Hall, so don’t sleep through the run of this dynamic spring musical production. Highly recommended.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Approximate running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

For tickets, information and directions: Visit the Shakespeare Theatre website  or call the STC box office at 202-547-1122.

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