Stokes Mitchell dreams impossible dream

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Jan. 17, 2003 at 10:21 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Brian Stokes Mitchell is dreaming his own impossible dream by singing Don Quixote in a Broadway revival of "Man of La Mancha," a role that validates his position as the American theater's pre-eminent leading man.

"I've wanted to do this show since I was 16 and played one of the muleteers in 'Man of La Mancha' at a dinner theater in San Diego, but never did I think that I would be performing in the title role on Broadway," the 45-year-old Mitchell, known simply as "Stokes" in the theater community, said in an interview backstage at the Martin Beck Theater.

"Today we've gotten to where we're filled with xenophobia and mistrust, and this is a show that reconnects people to a non-cynical place, to something that makes us feel positive about life." he said. "As an artist, I want to be like a Boy Scout and leave the place a little better than it was when I arrived, and this is a show that lets me do that."

Two years ago, when the run of "Kiss Me Kate," in which Mitchell played Fred Graham, was running down, he went to "Man of La Mancha" composer Mitch Leigh and proposed that the show be revived. He would take the Don Quixote role made famous by Richard Kiley, just as he had taken the Graham role originated by Alfred Drake.

Leigh agreed and Mitchell -- the only leading man on Broadway today big enough to fill Kiley and Drake's shoes -- got the role he had always dreamed of in a rethought staging directed by the renowned British director Jonathan Kent. The show far surpasses its most recent Broadway revival in 1992 starring Raul Julia, a creaky affair at best and quickly forgotten.

But Kent's production, with Mitchell's charismatic presence, bravura acting, and gorgeous baritone, has all the legs necessary for a long run. An added strength is the riveting performance of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the mercurial role of Aldonza, marking her return to the New York stage after 13 years in films and television, and the winning presence of Ernie Sabella as Sancho Panza.

Miguel de Cervantes' 1605 novel, "Don Quixote," the most famous book in Spanish literature, was adapted for the stage by librettist Dale Wasserman, and Joe Darion wrote the lyrics to Leigh's melodious score. The musical had its New York premiere as an Off-Broadway production in 1965 and was revived on Broadway with Kiley in 1972 and 1977.

The adaptation has Cervantes recalling his own experience of being sent to prison by the Inquisition and being forced to defend himself by telling the story of Don Quixote, a maverick country gentleman who fancies himself a knight with a quest -- to redress the wrongs of the world. He takes chivalric inspiration from a tavern slut named Aldonza, whom he renames Dulcinea and endows with every virtue she doesn't possess.

Mitchell brings a common-sense reality to the role of Cervantes and a half-mad grandeur to Don Quixote that lifts the sometimes leaden plot of the play-within-a-play to thrilling heights, even if this production fails to provide a windmill to engage him in a tilting match as previous productions have. He is at his best when gallantly but bashfully paying honor to his fair Aldonza-Dulcinea.

Mastrantonio throws herself into the earthiness of that role, acting and singing with abandon, but Sabella could put more humor into the faithful Sancho, Quixote's realist squire, and his voice is sorely lacking in quality. Excellent in minor roles are Mark Jacoby as a padre, Nataschia Diaz as Quixote's niece, Stephen Bogardus as a nobleman, Olga Merediz as Quixote's housekeeper, Don Mayo in the roles of prison governor and innkeeper, and Bradley Dean as fortune-seeker.

Paul Brown's soaring set, magnificently lit by Paul Gallo, looks like the interior of an iron beehive with a spiraling staircase and thrusting balconies, a constant reminder to the audience that Cervantes tale is told in a prison setting. It looks more like something Franco Zeffirelli might have designed for the Metropolitan Opera than Broadway musical scenery.

The prison walls split open occasionally to reveal Quixote's dream landscape of La Mancha where inns become castles and flocks of sheep are mistaken for armies. Brown's costumes are typically 17th century with fantastical touches to match Quixote's illusions. A memorable scene is the garbing of Cervantes as the knight errant, mounted on the makeshift horse that was created for him out of bits of wood and wheels by prison inmates.

This production puts more emphasis on dance than its predecessors, thus livening the action considerably.

Luiz Perez has created some lusty, rollicking choreography performed to the original dance music composed by Neil Warner augmented by new dance music by David Krane, and Brian Besterman has provided new dance orchestrations. But "Man of La Mancha" is still very much a musical of the 1960s, a very good vintage for any show.

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