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Art imitates a broader slice of life at the Garden Theatre

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Sunday, September 5, 2021


Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

The cast of Man of La Mancha, including the leads, (center left) Miguel Salas (Cervantes/Quixote), Annabell Mizrahi (Aldonza/Dulcinea), Radamés Medina Melendéz (Sancho Panza), discussed their experiences developing the production at the post-show talk-back Sept. 2.

There is a quiet revolution going on at the Garden Theatre on Plant Street in Winter Garden.

The theatre that has produced a steady stream of high quality, but low stakes fare since 2008, like Legally Blonde, Xanadu, Annie, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Flashdance: The Musical, has suddenly embraced the idea that art imitates life. Now under new artistic director Joseph C. Walsh, the Garden is featuring a broader spectrum of that life on its stage.

“We needed to address the Garden’s checkered past of diversity and inclusivity,” Walsh said plainly. 

This was practically the first thing out of his mouth when I met Walsh, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, black jeans and black Chuck Taylors, in front of the theatre box office. We were standing, coincidentally or not, steps from the separate entrance Black patrons had to use to get to the upstairs gallery because they were not permitted in the lobby or the main theatre when the Garden was a movie house during the Jim Crow era.

The Garden, which opened in 1935, closed in 1963, then reopened in 2008 as a mixed use movie-performance space, had never staged a play about Black life by a Black playwright. One of Walsh's first acts as artistic director, once he took the helm, was to produce A Raisin in the Sun. It ran in March. 

Walsh, now in his second year with the Garden, could have chosen any play to signal to Black audiences that they were welcome at the Garden: Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (August Wilson); Top Dog/Underdog (Suzan-Lori Parks); Ruined, Sweat (Lynn Nottage); For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf (Ntozake Shange).

Walsh reached for Raisin deliberately.

Lorraine Hansberry’s play about a Black family buying a house in a white suburb — based on her own family’s experience in Chicago — is the Black play that everyone knows because, at some point, everyone reads it in high school. It is the token nod to diversity at many schools. What gets lost in English class grind, though, is that Hansberry’s anti-segregation classic was groundbreaking when it debuted in 1959. It was the first play on Broadway by a Black playwright about authentic Black characters. It was also the first play directed by a Black director in more than half a century (Lloyd Richards, who would go on to helm August Wilson’s plays.)

And so, producing Raisin at the Garden was a reset, said Walsh.

“This was the first play ever produced on this stage that had a Black director, Black scenic designer, Black playwright and a majority Black cast,” said Walsh. “So that was a historic moment for the Garden. It took 13 years to get there. Thirteen years is too long, but we did it and I’m very proud that we did it.

“I felt like to engage with the African-American community, we had to start again. We had to go back to the beginning, to celebrate Lorraine Hansberry, who was the first black playwright to have a play produced on Broadway. I thought that history was quite poetic to re-engage with the community here, and say, This is a space to tell all stories, and we will tell them responsibly and appropriately, and we will staff them with the right voices to make sure they are successful.

“And the idea is not just doing it once,” he added. “The idea is once you invite people into the room, this becomes a shared space, and we worked very hard to make sure that it didn’t feel that this was a one-off. This is a whole new way of talking about theatre and how we do it here.”

Walsh’s 2021-2022 season continues to push boundaries, both as a way to invite more diverse audiences into the theatre and to encourage conversations about the issues raised onstage. First up is Man of La Mancha, which argues for immigration reform. That will be followed in January, to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, by Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, an imagined conversation between Martin Luther King, Jr. and a hotel maid the night before his assassination. Then in February, there’s Parade, a dark musical, based on actual events from 1913 Georgia when a Jewish factory manager was lynched after being wrongly convicted of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl.

“We’re in discussion with the African American Chamber and the Holocaust Memorial Center to have them involved with both of those productions to help lead conversations afterwards,” Walsh said.

Lighter fare like Looped about Norma Desmond; Big, the musical of the movie; and On Your Feet, the Emilio and Gloria Estefan story round out the season.

Man of La Mancha is one of the most produced (some might say over-produced) musicals in musical theatre history. The Financial Times described it as “an American workhorse since it first trotted on to Broadway in 1965.” It’s had four Broadway revivals and two national tours, not to mention the countless regional, college and high school productions it’s seen in the last 56 years.

Walsh has had a love affair with this show since he was 10 and his parents dragged him “kicking and screaming” to watch his brother perform in an all-boys Catholic school production. “I could not imagine anything more boring,” he told me as we sat masked and socially distanced inside the Garden’s chilly auditorium. Once his brother’s show started, though, he became “transfixed,” he said. “I spent the rest of the weekend bribing every family member to take me back. I went to every single performance that weekend.”

The musical, written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, is broadly based on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century novel Don Quixote. It tells the story of a poet and his loyal sidekick who, while gigging as tax collectors, lien a church and are subsequently are tossed into prison to await a hearing by the Spanish Inquisition. While in prison, their fellow prisoners put them on trial for being rosy-eyed idealists. As his defense, the poet weaves a fanciful tale of a delusional traveler who believes himself the knight Don Quixote.

White actors have historically been cast to play the roles, including the lead – Richard Kiley in the original Broadway production and the 1972 and 1977 revivals; Peter O’Toole in the 1972 film; Hal Linden and Robert Goulet in the national tours of 1988 and 1997-98, respectively; Kelsey Grammer in the 2019  English National Opera’s West End production. (A notable exception: Raul Julia in the 1992 Broadway revival.)

Not so this production, which, under Walsh’s direction, brings together an almost completely Latinx cast and then sets them down, not in the traditional 16th-century dungeon of the Spanish Inquisition, but a detention center on the southern border of the United States, circa today.

The scene design is a chain-link cage drawn right from the headlines of the border crisis. The blaring prison alarms that rip through the fantasy world the detainees create during the mock trial cause real anxiety as they’re no doubt meant to. Still, Walsh insisted his production is not a commentary on the Trump Administration, whose hardline immigration policies created the humanitarian crisis at the United States’ southern border. Rather, Walsh said, the production is more emblematic of America’s ready attitude to treat immigrants poorly — but particularly poorly, if not violently, when they’re not white. (See Exclusion Act, Chinese; Ban, Muslim; Caravan, Central American Migrants; Hate Crimes, Anti-Asian)

“The way this country has treated immigrants is a stain on this country that has happened for hundreds of years,” Walsh said. “This is what we’ve all done. We’re all guilty, and we can all do better.”

So, this is Walsh and the Garden, doing better. And not just onstage. Offstage, Walsh filled other key positions from BIPOC communities. Indeed, Walsh worried briefly that, as a white guy, he had conceptualized himself out of being the appropriate director for the show. But after discussions with cast members, he plunged in. After all, his own grandmother had immigrated from Ireland.

What makes this Man of La Mancha so visceral, so authentic — not just another tilting at cardboard windmills production — is that the actors, many of whom are bilingual, shared their personal stories, their family stories throughout the rehearsal process, giving the 16th-century characters backstories that are firmly rooted in today. Indeed, there’s a moment in the play where the cast stands together, gripping the fence, that Walsh loves, right before they start singing the reprise of “The Impossible Dream.”

“They’re holding someone from their history that had a story of coming into this country and how they were treated.” Walsh actually began tearing up at this. “This generation is the beginning of fruition of the work that their parents and their grandparents did to get them here. So there’s the idea of celebrating one of the people from their history who had been mistreated by the government, by the country, by others who saw them as the Other, to help build them into the reprise of ‘The Impossible Dream.’”

In fact, just take a moment to consider “The Impossible Dream,” a song so overdone in the past half-century, it’s practically elevator Muzak. But the lyrics, although they weren’t written about the herculean struggles that wave after wave of immigrants and refugees of America’s foreign wars have fought and endured to get into America, they certainly could have been.

To dream the impossible dream

To fight the unbeatable foe

To bear with unbearable sorrow

And to run where the brave dare not go

This is my quest

To follow that star

Ooh, no matter how hopeless

No matter how far

To fight for the right

Without question or pause

To be willing to march, march into hell

For that heavenly cause

And yet, under the layers of messaging about immigration reform and English-only laws and Otherness, there is still the beloved musical Man of La Mancha, with windmills and tavern brawls, beautiful live music, and Don Quixote’s chivalrous love for his Dulcinea. Walsh said they have not changed a word.

“We don’t want to exclude anyone from the art or the conversation,” Walsh said. “We’ve been intentional about creating something that didn’t make people turn off. Because if you can’t sit through the story, you can’t get the message. You know exactly what we’re saying if you want to see it. If not, you watch Man of La Mancha.”


Man of La Mancha

Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden

Through September 19

Some performances include ASL interpretation

For ticket info, visit the Garden site.

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