man-of-la-mancha-press-2No doubt, Man of La Mancha is a war horse. It’s been a Broadway favorite for years and it seems every local theater company takes a stab at it eventually. So it was with a bit of surprise that the newest theater company in town, The Company of Pittsburgh, would choose such a play to start off their 2013 season. I mean, why not do something more contemporary and edgy and funny? Oh wait, they are doing that with their next show, Title of Show, premiering in November. But you get what I mean.  Why start the season with a show that so many have already seen?

Well, I have an answer for that. And the answer is John Allen Biles.  And Nick Mitchell. And David Friday. And the rest of the Company of Pittsburgh team.  Because these men didn’t just rely on a well-known name of a show to draw an audience in, they were brave enough and creative enough and just downright ballsy enough to…forgive me, I can’t resist…dream the impossible dream. They reimagined this war horse until it no longer resembled anything equine, but something more ferocious and rare and wonderful.  We’re talking sabertooth tiger!

Forget everything you know about Man of La Mancha. You’ve never seen it like this. Daniel J. Kendgia’s lighting and scenic design worked wonderfully with the compact stage of Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie. It utilized every nook and cranny, every support beam and ceiling hook, and created a wonderful and immersing world for both actors and audience to enjoy.  And did the audience enjoy! There was laughter aplenty, especially for Bret Sloan’s Sancha, Don Quixote’s faithful and loyal sidekick. His belly-drumming was worth the show itself. But there were also moments of pure suspense and drama. Let’s not forget the stakes here: Don Quote, aka Miguel de Cervantes, is in jail awaiting trial with the Spanish Inquisition. His very life is in danger, and director Ted Watts, Jr. never lets us forget it. But we’ll get to him in a moment. Right now, I want to talk about the man of the hour himself, Don Quixote!

Don Quixote, much like Judah Iscariot, Eva Peron and Mama Rose, is one of the great, complex characters in musical theater…in any theater…in any medium for that matter.  There’s so much meat to the bone, so much you can do with them and interpret. Darrel Whitney not only interprets, he inhabits the skin of “either the most wise madman or the most mad wise man.” Tall and commanding, his voice emanates from a great barrel chest and projects out over the nearly full house, whether he’s speaking in a gruff accent or wrapping his vocals around songs such as the gorgeous “Dulcinea” and that standard “The Impossible Dream”.  He’s on stage every moment and his performance never waivers. It remains strong, convincing and oh so compelling. And he’s funny! He too got some big laughs of the night, especially when he figures a shaving basin will actually look much much better as a hat.  Priceless.

Another exceptional standout was Zanna Fredland’s Aldonza/Dulcinea. If she’s not nominated for Performer of the Year, I’ll be shocked. We’re talking utter and complete transformation! I had the chance to meet her and the difference from her actual personality and looks were a complete antithesis to the one she presented on stage. Gone was the sweet, girlish voice she naturally speaks in, the polite and pretty smile, the shiny brunette hair. In its place was a hard-edged accent, Medusa-like hair that was bigger than she was, and a fire and defensiveness in her eyes that made you pull up short.  But she never stays one note. She too transforms, softening but still remaining strong. It’s a wonderful sight to behold. And her singing….thrilling.

The entire cast was amazing. Most everyone in the company had double roles and I so appreciated the hard work from the actors that went into crafting each personality. Speaking of crafting, Shaun Rolly’s fight choreography was impeccably crafted. Don’t let the whole fighting-the-windmills thing fool you, Man of La Mancha is still gritty and full of tension and violence. And the onstage violence that Shaun was able to choreograph was just terrible to watch.  Which of course only means he did a great job.

You know who else did a great job? Director Ted Watts, Jr. It can’t be easy to be at the helm of a such a beloved musical and have to be so aware of the stage and the actors and audience and the lighting and choreography and everything else.  There are many moving parts to this musical and he made it look so easy. Which only goes to show how hard he worked.

You know who else did a great job?  Artistic Director John Allen Biles. Like I said before, he took this familiar and beloved musical, made it implode and then picked up the pieces to create something new, exciting, fresh and dramatic. Or, to say it a different way, he spruced up the picture and put an entirely new frame around it.

John and his associate artistic director Nick Mitchell certainly must have had their hands full and brains in overdrive in trying to find ways to make this musical work. But The Company of Pittsburgh’s entire 2013 season is all about dreams…the ones we want and wish for and dare to go after. I’m so glad this company dared to dream big. And trust me, you will too.

Closing night is tomorrow, and there’s still time to get tickets. Go here and type in QUIXOTE as the password for $4 off the price of the ticket.  But if you can’t make it to tonight’s show, never fear. You still have a chance to see The Company of Pittsburgh in action with the premiere of their second show in November.