On Theater: 'La Mancha' lands superbly in Westminster

When a musical theater production fervently stirs the hearts and souls of its audiences — such as "West Side Story," "Les Miserables" or even the more modern "Rent" — chances are it has its roots in the classics of a bygone era.

"Man of La Mancha," which took Broadway by storm in 1965 and remains one of the most beloved of musicals, is such an example, taking its cue from Miguel de Cervantes' 17th-century novel "Don Quixote." It's been around the local block a few times since, but never quite so fully realized as the current production at Westminster's Rose Center Theater.

Director Tim Nelson, who helms the Academy for the Performing Arts program at Huntington Beach High School and has populated the cast with several APA members, has mounted a powerful, passionate rendition of this modern classic. The voices at its center are superb, as are the performances, and the constant ensemble interaction enriches the show's atmosphere.

Set in a Spanish dungeon during the infamous Inquisition period, "Man of La Mancha" centers on Quixote's creator, Cervantes, who is thrust into custody for foreclosing on a church in his role as tax collector. Here he weaves his tale of a would-be knight errant (some three centuries after knighthood was in flower) setting out to right all wrongs and rescue damsels in distress — and recruiting fellow prisoners as cast members.

The fate of any "La Mancha" depends on its Quixote character, and here the Rose Center succeeds magnificently. Chris Caputo brings a powerful voice and commanding presence to the role, most assuredly when he thrusts the show's anthem, "The Impossible Dream," toward the rafters at the close of the first act. Such a strong actor might have trouble displaying age-related weakness, but Caputo tackles this obstacle convincingly as well.

Melissa Cook, who played the sweet Irish colleen in the center's recent "Brigadoon," takes on the challenging role of Aldonza, the "kitchen slut," with fiery determination and a superb singing voice, excelling as well in the physical demands of her assignment. Veteran actor Cliff Senior reaps gales of laughter as Quixote's rotund, platitude-spouting servant, Sancho.

As Quixote's principal antagonist, though at heart an ally, Vince Aniceto is an intellectually malevolent force. Alexis Karol and Dannielle Green divide the role of his fiancée, while Mary Murphy-Nelson sparkles in the comedic cameo of the housekeeper.

Nelson, generally seen in the front ranks of Rose Center productions, takes on the relatively minor supporting role of the Padre and magnifies it with a pair of splendid solos. Michael Hebler scores as the befuddled innkeeper, while Jon Gale dominates the stage as the vicious head muleteer, Pedro. Even the "horses" get some rich character traits in this production.

Caputo, the resident designer in Mission Viejo High School's theater arts program, doubles as set designer, creating a formidable prison wall backdrop, enhanced by scenic artist Claudia Johnson. Cliff and Jenny Senior have created some impressive costumes and wigs, while choreographers Diane Makas and Michael Lopez create a stirring gypsy dance.

"Man of La Mancha" has been around for more than 45 years and holds few surprises. But excellence in interpretation has never been stronger than in the Rose Center production.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "Man of La Mancha"

Where: Rose Center Theater, 14140 All American Way, Westminster

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays until March 6

Cost: $17 to $22

Information: (714) 793-1150

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