Bob Brown returns as Don Quixote for Salt City Center’s Man of La Mancha
By James MacKillop
The Salt City Center for the Performing Arts brand, now 40 years old and without a permanent home, has actually been having a good year. Cathleen O’Brien’s electrifying Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, seen by minuscule audiences, was justly recognized by the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Academy at awards time. The house that Joe and Pat Lotito built has pretty much devolved to O’Brien, the soprano, and her soon-tobe husband, baritone Bob Brown. With limited resources, they have marshaled their strengths wisely, putting musical quality first in their revival of the Joe Darion-Mitch Leigh musical Man of La Mancha, now at the State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater. To this they have the very personal element of pluck.
In the lengthy, Spanish-influenced overture for this last of the golden-age musicals, we have a four-player orchestra led by Fred Willard of Syracuse University and featuring esteemed jazzman and percussionist Larry Luttinger, trumpeter and keyboardist Barry Blumenthal and reeds man Joe Carello. Coming as it did a year after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, most of the music did not enter public consciousness, but for compelling tunefulness and drama, it is often ranked in the top 15 of the last century. The Willard-led sound is vibrant and robust, but never so much as to drown out the principals. O’Brien and Brown are bringing us big voices, beginning with their own.
As Brown has long been one of the most familiar and public of all community players, he has had the chance to be quoted countless times to the effect that Man of La Mancha is his favorite role, ahead of that Andrew Lloyd Webber Bible-based franchise that runs during Lent. That means he’s prepared to thunder the rafters with the signature tune, “The Impossible Dream,” coming at the first act’s curtain and reprised in the second act. Being on stage about 90 percent of the time, he has to be on top of dozens of other things, like appearing in three different personae: Cervantes the author/prisoner, Alonso Quijana the dreamer, and finally Don Quixote himself, the dreamed character. Directing himself, Brown must be at times comic, as while running in place from a suspended ladder, and overcome with pathos as he faces death.
Although experienced opera singer O’Brien appeared in an earlier Salt City Center production, her artistic vision is more evident this time. Because of the demands put on singers, Man of La Mancha is one of a handful of Broadway shows, such as Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story and Carousel, that can gain with operatic energy in many of the solos. O’Brien sets the pace with the resonant bleakness of her first number, “It’s All the Same,” about how the lowly servant Aldonza has been brutalized by exploitive men. Within the same first act Aldonza begins to rise from the depths after being touched by idealism. Her “What Does He Want of Me?” delivers a lyric skepticism polished with grace.
In the second act her reprise of the lovely “Dulcinea,” an acceptance of Don Quixote’s vision of her, emphasizes the important dramatic turn. O’Brien ably reinterprets words first sung by a baritone and now raised to a soprano’s heights. This is to refute the stygian self-accusation a bit earlier of “Aldonza’s Song,” in which she brands herself a whore.
The new element transforming this production from earlier Salt City Center mountings is the importation of lyric tenor Richard Koons, last seen as one of Maria Callas’ hapless students in Master Class. He takes two roles not usually doubled, that of the opportunistic Padre and the rapacious Muleteer.
These two characters draw on different swatches from the parcel of talents he brings with him As the singing Padre, he provides the counterpoint in the haunting and sweetly cynical trio, “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” This is where the conniving niece Antonia (Molly Brown) and the grasping housekeeper (Kate Kisselstein) make plans to benefit should misfortune befall the family. They sing through the confessional grate, and the Padre joins in. Distinctly Spanish in tone, it can stand alone in the show. The women are not heard from again, but the tenor Padre soars again in the penultimate first-act number, “To Each His Dulcinea,” in other productions a throw-away but highly affecting here. Koons’ Padre again has the second-tolast word with “The Psalm” in Act II.
Koons’ tenor enhances the cadre of Muleteers in “Little Bird, Little Bird,” but this second role relies more on his movement training. Slightly built and fair-haired, Koons doesn’t begin by looking like a threat, but as the lead aggressor he convinces in the rapists’ charge to humiliate the formidable, tough-talking Aldonza.
Also playing a bit against type is dark-browed Bill Ali as Sancho Panza, so impressive as the explosive Eddie in the Talent Company’s The Rocky Horror Show last year on the same stage. In addition to his somewhat threatening persona, Ali is that rare Sancho who is actually taller than Don Quixote. That makes his sweetness in the supportive solo, “I Really Like Him,” all the more beguiling. Similarly, his comforting “A Little Gossip” in the second act brings a ray of brightness to the midst of gloom.
Moving up from the chorus to the spotlight is Douglas McCall in the often doubled roles of the tyrannical “governor” of Cervantes’ prison and the innkeeper of the tale he spins. He’s in excellent voice for the “Dubbing” and in leading the ensemble in the bitterly ironic “Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” Similarly, Peter Dowling makes the most of his single solo in the lightheaded “Barber’s Song.”
Company veteran David Walker never sings but delivers commanding presences in two roles as the Duke and Dr. Carrasco. This allows him to wear the single most dazzling costume in the show, the silver suit of armor.
The program for Man of LaMancha thanks five different performers’ unions for allowing this show to happen. That means we are seeing and hearing quite a few professionals who waived their usual fees. No names are given, but it could be many. This is a production where strong talents give their all to keep Salt City Center with us.
This production runs through Oct. 29. See Times Table for information.