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Thursday, 13 February 2014 12:32

'Man of LaMancha' is a textured and charming fantasy

Written by Tina Farmer
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'Man of LaMancha' is a textured and charming fantasy
playbill.com / Carol Rosegg

Audiences at the beautiful Peabody Opera House were treated to a brief escape from the winter's chill in St. Louis with a warm and inviting production of "Man of La Mancha" from Chasing Windmills LLC. The cast is strong throughout and the story an interesting and engaging interpretation of Cervantes life, as well as his most famous tale.

The story is set in a sort of dungeon, or mass holding cell, during the Spanish Inquisition, and the scenic design by Randel Wright is simply gorgeous. There are several levels for the actors, including a dramatic center staircase which lowers and raises like a drawbridge. The lighting design, by Charlie Morrison and John Burkland, is striking and used to great effect in transitions as well as to heighten tension during important scenes.

The experience began shortly before the opening curtain, with a series of songs, some accompanied with dance, a loose, relaxed preshow that easily moves into the orchestra’s more formal opening. As the show opens, Cervantes is brought in, and the story of the errant knight Don Quixote unfolds as he awaits trial. The pretext is clever and creates a lively set-up as Cervantes reaches into a large trunk and hands out costume bundles to other prisoners, assigning the roles of various characters important to Quixote's story.

Cureton is lively and expressive, with excellent costume and make-up that exaggerates the idea of mad genius on the friendly side. His hair and eyebrows so comically styled, they are almost a character of their own. Though his voice is at times thin, Cureton infuses his character with a zest for life and storytelling that is infectious. He bounds across the stage energetically, but always with a courtly air and sensibility.

Cureton has a strong supporting cast around him, particularly Jessica Norland, as Aldonza, and Rick Grossman as Sancho. The three show a genuine rapport on stage, expertly playing off each other with perfectly timed reactions and expressions. The actors work well together, and there is a genuine sense of spontaneity and natural expression in many of their scenes.

Norland has a strong and beautiful voice, and it is a highlight when she is included in the songs. Her Aldonza is experienced, and at times a bit world weary, setting up lovely moments as she finds her self touched by Quixote’s chivalry and chaste affection. Norland skillfully transitions through her character’s changes, and it is a pleasure to watch her tough, street-smart demeanor soften without breaking. The success of her portrayal is that she is never weak, but she gains a sense of hope and some small happiness.

Grossman’s Sancho is appropriately slapstick, when the scene calls for it, but he is nobody’s fool. Cureton and Grossman play off each other almost offhandedly. Their relationship feels natural and long-term, with a wealth of humor that’s rooted in affection and respect. Even when he is puzzled by Quixote’s actions, Sancho remains steadfast and loyal, and Grossman plays this to near perfection. But, Grossman’s performance is more than simple sidekick; he commands attention without stealing focus as he marshals the other characters to their places in the story. Grossman is at times subtle, at times overt, and always charmingly direct. It works to great effect.

The ensemble features a number of performers with the combination of voice, movement, and acting abilities to secure leading roles. This serves the production well, as there is always an interesting moment to keep your attention or add texture to the story.

Andrew Serkes guitar playing at the top of the show provided the first impressive ensemble moment. Chuck Caruso, Rachel Felstein, Todd Fenstermaker, Jebbel Arce, and Felipe Bombonato are also among the standout ensemble members in this production. Each of these actors caught my eye with their commitment to the character as well as the quality of their performance.

“Man of LaMancha” is just one of several intriguing shows in the Peabody Opera House season. To learn about upcoming shows and make reservations, visit www.peabodyoperahouse.com or call (314) 499-7600.

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