Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
It has taken a dozen years for Richard Kiley to bring his original "Man of La Mancha" role here, but Monday night the wait was rewarded wih a performance that has improved with time. The National's spellbound audience knew it was watching something special unfold, and did not miss the fact that in Emily Yancy, the musical's Aldonza, it was meeting a superb singing actress.
One compensation for the lack of good new musicals is that now we are getting first-class productions of the old ones, carefully crafted and cast with ringing voices. This one's Innkeeper, for instance, is played by Bob Wright, who headed one of the half-dozen "Man of La Mancha" companies that have visited the National. To celebrate the National's opening, composer Mitch Leigh conducted the overture.
The run is for four weeks and the tour will continue on the West Coast until spring.
At the heart of this enormously loved musical is "The Quest" - "The Impossible Dream" - and, to watch Kiley build to it is a gorgeous lesson in how to create a few moments of moving simplicity. It has been established, in this charade taking place in jail of the Spanish Inquisition, that the Cervantes character is spinning a yarn about "the wisest madman or the maddest wise man."
Trusting his material, Kiley never presses. He has sung of his ideal "Dulcinea" and in a barber's shaving dish he recognizes "The Golden Helmet of Mambrino." Suspicious. Aldonza has sung "What Does He Want of Me?" and Sancho Panza has admitted, "I Really Like Him." There has been mockery in "I'm Only Thinking of Him" and, in both sweet and sour tones, "Little Bird, Little Bird."
And now, with Aldonza more curious than annoyed, "I, Don Quixote" explains his quest. Kiley has dared to be absurd as the old-fashioned lover of knight errantry, but quietly, imperiously, with his makeshift shaft held proudly, the absurd old man begins his case against "the unbeatable foe." It is done with the most disarming simplicity. The gestures are big, broad, but never fussy, never too many. The baritone, clear and strong, pours out the melody and the meanings of Joe Darion's decisive lyrics sear across the audience.
As one who relished Kiley's performance during his first New York week and who has seen about eight other productions, I had been anxious that a very clear memory would overwhelm this belated Kiley visit. But no. By taking away, by whittling down, by refining the detail, Kiley moved me again and profoundly.
Emily Yancy is remembered for her Irene Molloy in Pearl Bailey's first "Hello, Dolly!" visit, a role for sweet, silvery singing. Aldonza is something else, a cruel vocal challenge that has detroyed more than one of the many who have played her. Yancy's training shows. She does not attempt the gruff, groaning tones some have used to their ultimate sorrow. She sings her many numbers with warm, rich tones and, a truly beautiful woman, acts the baffled girl with thrilling command.
Almost all the principals are "La Mancha" veterans and wholly at home in Howard Bay's dungeon and accomodating environs. Wright's Innkeeper, Taylor Reed's Padre, Ian Sullivan's Dr. Carrasco, Ted Forlow's Barber and Harriet Conrad's Antonia all are well sung.