Eric Davis must be the most gifted director in the Tampa Bay area. I suspected it after I saw The Wild Party at The Studio@620 years ago, I felt sure of it after seeing Hair at American Stage in the Park two springs ago, and now that I've experienced Man of La Mancha at freeFall Theatre's new space, there's just no other evaluation possible.
As he did with The Wild Party, Davis places the audience right in the midst of the action, daring us to find one false move from the performers only inches away from us. He makes a large wooden table an indispensable actor's platform, he turns the Spanish Inquisition into a robotic voice behind a steel door, he makes Quixote's beloved Aldonza so impossibly sluttish that only a madman could look at her and see the fair Dulcinea — and then he convinces us that this is precisely what the Woeful One sees.
And performances — there are no weak links in the ensemble here. In Steven Patterson, Davis has found a Quixote whom Kierkegaard would have understood, in Glenn Gover he's given us the most great-hearted of Sancho Panzas, and in Alan Satkowski and Nicholas J. White he's brought us guitarists so talented, we're in danger of being distracted from the lyrics by the accompaniment.
I don't think La Mancha is entirely a great musical — Dale Wasserman's book misses too many chances, stays on the surface of things too often — but Davis stages this production with such kinetic sincerity, you can almost believe that you're witnessing a masterpiece.
The story Wasserman tells begins with Quixote's author Cervantes being thrown into prison because he's offended the Inquisition. He's got a manuscript — you can guess what it is — and in order to save it from destruction, he offers to put on a show for his fellow prisoners.
Next thing you know, we're watching the tale of Alonso Quijano, who loses his mind and believes that he's the great Don Quixote de la Mancha. With his faithful squire Sancho Panza, he sets out to battle ogres (or windmills), find a noble (or at least an innkeeper) who can officially knight him, and win the favor of a noble lady (the prostitute Aldonza). He gets into fights physical and verbal, compels others to scorn or pity, and becomes the object of his niece's attempt to restore him to sanity.
More importantly, he provides the opportunity for some wonderful songs by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion — from the world-class "The Impossible Dream" to the entirely respectable "I, Don Quixote," "It's All the Same," "Dulcinea" and "Aldonza." In act two, a rather feeble attempt is made to justify his delusions, and then we're left to discover whether Quixote's niece and her allies can restore the poor guy to sanity. Is it possible that he's better off not knowing who he is? Are all realities desirable?
If all the performances are excellent, still there's one that stands out for its great humanity and emotional truth. Glen Gower plays Sancho Panza as a deeply generous soul fully devoted to his master, caring and solicitous and suffused with a radiant love for a broken human being. I've seen Gower in several other shows, and he's always outstanding; it's a great pleasure to discover his take on sturdy Sancho.
As I've suggested, Steven Patterson's Quixote has an existential edge. Lulu Picart's Aldonza is a whore with a heart of lead, and damned if she's gonna let stubborn Quixote perform any alchemy. Fine work is also turned in by Alison Burns, John Lombardi and Brian Loveland.
Director Davis also designed the contemporary costumes, and the expressive and complex lighting is by the ubiquitous Joseph Oshry. The set is by Steve Mitchell.
So check this one out. It's spectacularly professional, and lacks nothing but a full orchestra. I suspect people will be talking about it for years to come. FreeFall's living up to its promise. And that, it turns out, was no impossible dream.