Pulliam Review: ‘Man of La Mancha’ season’s finest musical, MAPA’s best in memory

“Man of La Mancha” begins in silence with a certain nonchalance. One by one, woeful “prisoners” slowly enter. As the audience begins to notice them the pre-show murmuring subsides. The unusual choice by director David Johnston is quite brilliant, pulling the audience in slowly instead of the standard blackout followed by the roar of an overture. “Man of La Mancha” is not your usual musical. The wonderful set, designed by Caro Walker, is also better appreciated in this gradual, silent, somber beginning. Johnston has truly made this an ensemble musical as opposed to focusing entirely on the trio of primary characters. “La Mancha” is intended for each cast member to play multiple roles and be adept with precise harmonies (especially on “Little Bird, Little Bird”). Because of the intimacy of the Steppingstone Playhouse, if a single actor had been a weak link they would have stuck out like a sore thumb. At times the cast is just inches away from you, so watch your feet. The dream team of prisoners; David Negaard, Karen Gladden, Vinnie Linares, Kevin Lawrence, Ricky Jones, Osheyana Martinez, Phil Duss, Dylan Bode, Jeff Brackett, Steve Hatcher, Ted Hatcher, Jim Oxborrow, William Makozak, Kristi Scott and Lauren Olsen could easily be glossed over to focus on the three leads, but “La Mancha” is better appreciated if your eyes are constantly moving, drinking in the whole. Some of the finest moments in this poignant production are not the acting but the reacting and the emotion that is conveyed in silence by the ensemble.

The title character, Cervantes/Don Quixote, is played superbly by Dale Button. The expression on his face at curtain call conveyed it all. This is a part Button was born to or destined to play, depending on how you look at it, and a part that it appears he revels playing more than any other. After a quick costume change by Button, he is now Don Quixote and the musical explodes with energy on the title song “Man of La Mancha.” Hoku Pavao Jones as Aldonza/ Dulcinea is enchanting. Perhaps an odd choice of words for a character referenced as an “alley cat” and a “slut,” but like Quixote, the audience sees her as Dulcinea in this endearing performance. Completing the flawless trio is Francis Tau’a as Sancho. As always Tau’a is hysterical, at times commanding as if in his reality it’s a show about Sancho Panza’s adventure. Humor aside, Tau’a’s finest stage moment was in silence as he says goodbye to dear friend Quixote. Cervantes and Sancho do not have the happiest of endings, and they do not leave the prisoners with much joy. What they leave is palpable hopefulness and strength as the remaining ensemble of 17 singers delivers a haunting, chicken-skin inducing reprise of “The Impossible Dream.” Just after the only blackout in this production that creeps up on you, the audience exploded in thunderous applause. “La Mancha” is the finest musical of the season thus far and perhaps the finest MAPA production in recent memory.

* MAPA’s “Man of La Mancha,” will run until Feb. 24 in Steppingstone Playhouse in Queen Ka’ahumanu Center at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, see Events page 16, or call 244-8760.