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Theater Latte Da turns staple 'Man of La Mancha' into a protest piece

Allen Weeks

Allen Weeks

After the curtain call at Sunday’s matinee performance of Man of La Mancha, director Peter Rothstein stepped onstage to salute an early mentor, in attendance, who helped inspire his lifelong love of theater. She must have been gratified to see how her former student is multiplying her gift, creating productions that remind audiences why art matters.

In this particular instance, Rothstein has revitalized a musical that’s been consigned to musty dinner theaters. Man of La Mancha is far from the most obvious show to prove demonstrably relevant in 2017, but Rothstein homes in on one of the musical’s key lines: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?”

Rothstein sets Theater Latté Da’s new production in an immigration detention center: a brutal chamber with concrete walls and stained floors, a grating buzzer sounding whenever the security door is opened. By removing the play-within-a-play’s setting from the Spanish Inquisition to the present day, Rothstein brings the themes of human dignity and desperate imagination into sharp relief.

Once the story is underway, though, the production luxuriates in the brilliant music and witty script that have kept playwright Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Don Quixote in regular rotation for half a century. As author Miguel de Cervantes, Martín Solá sublimely embodies the noble mien that makes the ostensibly disordered Spaniard a magnetic figure. He’s accompanied by Sancho (Zach Garcia), his right-hand man.

One of Rothstein’s many excellent choices here was to cast the fierce Meghan Kreidler as Aldonza. Far from the blowsy wench her clients perceive, Kreidler makes Aldonza a formidable personality who’s devastating in her disappointment when her Don proves unable to defend her. Her eponymous testimonial song is at the dark heart of this moving production.

It’s not all gloom in La Mancha, though, thanks to on-point character acting by the entire ensemble—notably Andre Shoals as the Innkeeper and Jon-Michael Reese as an amusingly reluctant Padre. With Reese flanked by McKinnley Aitchison’s Antonia and Sara Ochs’ Housekeeper, “I’m Only Thinking of Him” is so entertaining that you can almost miss the pristine quality of the trio’s singing.

A four-member band is hidden from view, but their presence is strongly felt as music director Denise Prosek captures the warmth of composer Mitch Leigh’s Spanish-flavored music.

The production ends with a gut punch, as we return to the detention center and the diverse characters step forward to sing a reprise chorus of “The Impossible Dream.” After last fall’s election, theater artists across the country promised to respond swiftly. Who could have guessed that a 1964 musical would constitute one of this season’s most powerful rebukes?

Man of La Mancha
Ritz Theater
345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-339-3003; through October 22