Gonna Take a Miracle

You may not know that the 1966 musical Man of La Mancha takes place in a prison cell during the Spanish Inquisition. You may not know that the play's main character is Miguel de Cervantes, the sixteenth-century Spanish author who wrote the masterpiece novel Don Quixote. And you may not know that in Man of La Mancha's play within a play, Cervantes leads his fellow prisoners in a re-enactment of the last days of Don Quixote de La Mancha. But you'd have to have been living on Pluto for the last 30 years not to have heard the show's signature number "The Impossible Dream."

Although worn thin as a metaphor during graduation ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, and all manner of grand openings, then Muzaked to death in elevators and dentist offices, in the right hands this musical ode to tenacity can still inspire. Which it did when Jerry Gulledge finally got to it in the second act of Actors' Playhouse's very long Man of La Mancha, the show that inaugurates the company's new digs in Coral Gables. Everyone was more than ready for Gulledge to belt out a "Dream" that would water the eyes of the most hardened cynic. The black-tie opening-night audience had survived double booking of seats, 35 minutes of pre-curtain thank-yous, a first act during which several songs went unmiked, and a 45-minute intermission featuring a cranky twelve-person deep-crowd clamoring for cookies. Yes, at times the first-night hoopla surrounding the play seemed as much of a show as the musical itself. Yet who can blame the folks at Actors' Playhouse for throwing themselves and the community a shindig extraordinaire? They earned a big celebration, having worked their tails off since May to transform the historic Miracle Theatre from a quadriplex movie house into a majestic Art Deco playhouse, and with only moments to spare. David Trimble's massive prison set had been completed only three days before; all but one preview had been cancelled; and before opening night, the cast had been on-stage with the set and the props just once. In truth, early on the musical creaked its way through technical failures and a murderously slow pace, then rallied to finish with a flourish.

Man of La Mancha opens in Seville, where Cervantes (Gulledge) has been imprisoned along with his manservant. However, before the poet-philosopher-theater impresario can be tried by the Inquisition, his fellow cellmates want to pass judgment on him. To win them over, Cervantes improvises a play, casting himself as the windmill-chasing idealist Don Quixote, and casting his servant as Quixote's sidekick Sancho Panza (amusingly portrayed by James Puig). Various prisoners are pressed into service by Quixote to play an innkeeper (Christopher Bishop), a padre (Michael L. Walters, who has a splendid voice), the fiance of Quixote's niece (Wayne LeGette), and an aggressive group of muleteers. Cervantes enlists a woman prisoner to play Aldonza (Connie SaLoutos), a jaded prostitute with a crude tongue who Quixote insists on honoring as his lady, Dulcinea. By the time the Inquisition comes for him, Cervantes-Quixote has convinced the prisoners that "It's madness to see life as it is and not as it's meant to be."

Although Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's memorable score has always been stronger than Dale Wasserman's book, in the best of all possible productions both score and book seamlessly combine to express the play's themes: the triumph of art and idealism in an ugly world; the conflict between illusion and reality; the connection between identity and self-esteem. In this production, director David Arisco has assembled a cast with uniformly excellent voices who summon their energy for the musical numbers while floundering at turtle speed through the text. In the lead role, Gulledge balances his fine singing voice with a credible depiction of the imprisoned Cervantes. He brings almost no shading to his role as Quixote, however, rendering the character a doddering, pop-eyed old man instead of a lunatic-poet. SaLoutos also possesses a notable voice. Unfortunately, while she sings her key numbers well enough, her delivery lacks piss and vinegar. The potentially harrowing number "Aldonza," in which the character confesses to being "born in a ditch by a mother who left me there," falls particularly flat. (At the end of the show, she recovers to nail a heartfelt reprise of the exquisite ballad "Dulcinea.") When not singing, SaLoutos portrays Aldonza as a standard-issue whore who spits, rustles her ragged skirts, and shakes her fists on demand.

Part of the blame for the production's awkwardness can be attributed to technical glitches; part can be pinned on the size of the stage. Nine years ago, Barbara Stein (now executive director) and Lawrence Stein (now chairman of the board) started Actors' Playhouse in Kendall, mounting Man of La Mancha as their first show. Artistic director Arisco didn't direct that first La Mancha, but since 1988 he has directed almost everything else on the Kendall main stage. This time around he landed the challenging job of bringing the musical to a space almost twice as large as the one in the former facility. A successful transition from a cozy stage to a cavernous one may be several productions away, although I'm willing to wager that La Mancha will tighten up considerably throughout its six-week run. By the end of opening night, the cast seemed to have hit its stride, offering an arresting ensemble performance with the reprise of "Dulcinea" and continuing on through the final four numbers.

With Actors' Playhouse's move from Kendall to the Gables, Arisco has promised to expand on what he readily admits has been the company's formula programming (musicals, thrillers, comedies, and classics). Indeed, in order to "truly become one of the country's great regional theatres" -- an intention he states in the Man of La Mancha program -- he must make good on his promises to include the staging of dramas by less-than-conventional playwrights and a play-reading series that develops new work.

In her remarks before Man of La Mancha, Coral Gables Vice Mayor Dorothy Thomson hailed the Miracle's reopening as a "historic evening." Across town, celebrating 40 years of theater history, Coconut Grove Playhouse began its season with Ladies in Retirement. Although overly long and hopelessly dated, this 1939 British thriller offers richly satisfying performances by five-time Tony Award-winner Julie Harris and a superb supporting cast.

Devised as a murder mystery, Ladies draws its premise from an actual nineteenth-century French homicide case, although playwrights Edward Percy and Reginald Denham recast the story in a classic mystery setting -- a country house outside an English village. Ellen Creed (Harris) serves as part-time servant, part-time companion to the house's owner, Leonora Fiske (Carole Cook), retired from her career as a chorus girl yet still supported by several gentleman friends. Leonora welcomes Ellen's sisters Louisa (Eileen Brennan) and Emily (Laura Esterman) into her home for a visit, until they overstay their welcome by several months. When Ellen learns that Leonora wants to send her sisters packing, she hatches a scheme that will ensure their permanent residence in her employer's home.

Ladies features a murder as well as numerous thriller conventions, from hidden staircases to bricked-up walls. Unfortunately the play lacks a bona fide mystery. We know who-done-it by the end of act one, and we know who will discover who-done-it very soon after act two begins; this does not bode well for the suspense factor, a crucial murder-mystery element conspicuously absent here. Finally, although the play's authors strive to engage the characters in the sort of mind games that help to shape a gripping mystery, they haven't created complex or perverse enough personalities to pull it off.

Given such a leaden script, the fact that director Charles Nelson Reilly coaxes intricate performances from his actors seems amazing. At first an unassuming caretaker, Harris's Ellen ever so slowly reveals her tyrannical side, then cracks under the pressure of her need for control. In a riveting showdown, Ellen and Leonora trade venomous barbs. And even though Harris and Cook barely move their bodies an inch, the exchange is one of the most dynamic I've seen on-stage.

A face-off between Ellen and her nephew Albert (Christian Jules Le Blanc) proves almost as compelling, with Harris bringing a ferocious and desperate concentration to the paring of an apple during the scene. Eileen Brennan offers a witty, offbeat performance as the loopy, chatterbox Louisa. As the equally nutty Emily, Laura Esterman alternates between pessimism and childlike sullenness, attempting to calm her character's anxieties through obsessive behavior such as shredding pieces of bread. Le Blanc brings a mischievous energy to his role as the profligate Albert; the character's scenes with Lucy the maid (played with aplomb by Alison Crowley) lend the evening a playful sexiness.

James Noone captures the mood of a country cottage in his two-level set filled with bric-a-brac, while Kirk Bookman convincingly moves us through the days and the seasons with his lighting design. Noel Taylor's costumes convey each character's personality, via the prim buttoned-up garb worn by Ellen and Leonora's screaming-green hostess gown and Emily's slapped-together ensembles.

The thriller has come a long way since the staid Thirties, with contemporary tastes sharpened by the mental gymnastics of Anthony Shaffer's 1970 Sleuth and the unsentimental realism of television's Prime Suspect. While first-class acting, direction, and design lend this production of Ladies in Retirement a certain panache, a snooze of a script will leave sophisticated audiences stifling yawns.

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