Homecoming musical to feature dream theme for centennial
Release Date: February 5, 2009
PLAINVIEW – Preparing for a major musical production in Harral Auditorium, while continuing to teach a full load of courses, may sound like a nightmare to some. On the contrary, Jeff Kensmoe sees it as a dream come true.
And that’s fitting since the production of Man of La Mancha comes during Wayland Baptist University’s Centennial Celebration, themed “Dreams to Reality.” In fact, that theme inspired Kensmoe, assistant professor of music and director of vocal studies at WBU, and theatre director Dr. Marti Runnels to settle on the musical for this special year emphasis.
“We considered big favorites like Oklahoma and The Sound of Music, then Dr. Runnels suggested this musical with ‘Dream the Impossible Dream’ and the Spanish influence and we felt like it fit so well for our centennial year,” Kensmoe said. “I feel like we couldn’t have picked a better musical for this year.”
Runnels echoed that sentiment, adding the deeper message he hopes hits home for local audiences.
“It’s the perfect musical to do in Plainview with the wonderful mix of ethnicities in this town, which can often become polarized,” he said. “We hoped it would be a unifying thing for people and a statement to the community that Wayland is a place that has not wanted to put up walls because you were from a particular country or ethnicity. It really resonates with us that way.”
Written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the musical is based on Miguel de Cervantes’ book Don Quixote. In the musical version, Cervantes is waiting to be judged by the Spanish Inquisition, and to bide his time he tells the story of an idealized knight errant who chooses to fight for the honor of a prostitute. Many forces combine to oppose the knight in his pursuit of this impossible dream.
Besides the major production, Kensmoe is equally excited about casting Runnels in the lead role as Don Quixote, a mad, aging nobleman who amazes others with his optimism and chivalric ideas. Though he’s better known in the area for his acting and directing abilities at Wayland – he starred in the summer 2007 production of Shadowlands at Ruidoso’s Spencer Theater – Runnels has much experience in singing as well and has relished the role.
The arrangement might make for some uncomfortable moments in an ordinary situation, but Kensmoe said he and Runnels work well together in shared directorial roles and there hasn’t been any awkwardness in the role reversal for La Mancha.
“He told me from the beginning, ‘I’m the actor, not the director here.’ But I want it to be his role, too, so there’s a lot of room for him to put his own interpretation into his role,” Kensmoe said.
For Runnels, that means connecting heavily with the Quixote role in terms of the acceptance of people regardless of race or background and the Christ-like aspect of his behavior.
“I found a lot of inspiration for myself personally in looking at the way that this character relates to the world. Young people today will look at it and undoubtedly see some ‘Forrest Gump’ similarities,” he said. “(Quixote) is able to see the world as we wish it was, and in doing so, he becomes a Christ-like figure. He transforms people by seeing them as more than what they are. This has been a spiritual endeavor for me.”
Runnels said he believes Cervantes meant to make a commentary on the religious world of his day and time. Rather than the rough methods of the Spanish Inquisition, he felt the world would benefit from the loving, accepting way of Quixote. And of course, he draws the parallel between the attitudes of those around Quixote, who found him to be crazy due to his views, and Christ himself, who faced the same persecution because he welcomed fellowship with sinners and others the religious leaders shunned.
“That is one of the questions that comes out in the play: what is madness?” he said. “Is the war and violence and hatred really sanity?”
A production of this magnitude brings with it extra challenges, such as the size of cast and the massive set and blocking on the huge Harral Auditorium stage. There are 20-plus students involved in the production on the acting side, and the structure of the play itself makes blocking out the scenes interesting at best.
“It’s a play within a play, so there are all these vignettes, and it’s a challenge to move seamlessly within those plays and realities,” said Kensmoe, noting the set design has helped with that in large part. “Blocking (on the multi-level set) is definitely a challenge, but at the same time, it lends itself to some great images for audiences, and we try to take advantage of that.”
Kensmoe admits the production is the biggest of its type he’s ever directed, but he brings a wealth of experience in musical theatre to the role… not to mention some great expertise in the School of Music. He notes the 20-piece orchestra is being conducted by Tim Kelley, associate professor of music and director of instrumental studies, and Dr. Richard Fountain, assistant professor of collaborative piano, has served as accompanist for much of the rehearsals so far. Kensmoe’s wife, Natalie Collins, stepped in to help with choreography, to which she brings much experience from professional productions. And most of the remaining music faculty have helped their own students hone vocal and instrumental skills in preparation for the show.
Just getting all the pieces and parts to come together has also required patience and creativity on Kensmoe’s part.
“The biggest challenge is trying to understand the size and scope of the auditorium – and where all the audience will be – as well as the scope of the piece. At times, it calls for being larger than life,” Kensmoe said.
Despite the challenges, Kensmoe said he feels so strongly about the play itself and its message that he is willing to overcome it all to see audiences enjoy the production. The concepts of honor and doing what is right, class status, idealism and chivalry – all of which Kensmoe said often fly in the face of society’s norms – are timeless.
“There’s a lot of this we can take away from the piece today,” he said. “There’s more that pertains than one would first believe. I can’t imagine a person coming to this show and not finding something they can just jump into and enjoy.”
Kensmoe gets a little emotional when mentioning one favorite aspect, the transformation of the main female character, Aldonza, the prostitute that Quixote defends and courts. And that aspect is not lost on Rachel Morgan, the WBU junior from Plainview who fills the role and shares Runnels’ interpretation of the play from the faith angle.
“I cannot help but see (the play) as an allegory, especially now from the perspective of the character of Aldonza,” said Morgan, who has been in many WBU theatre productions and had the lead role in the musical Spitfire Grill a few years ago. “She is the lowest of the low, one who is not respected by those around her, or even by herself. Yet even though she sees life through this dim, hopeless light, Don Quixote treats her with such unwarranted respect that she is eventually taken by the impossible dream he seems to live. By his love for her, she finds hope.”
Morgan said she tries to find a connection to every character she plays, and in the role of Aldonza, the spiritual connection is present for the first time. More of a straight actor at heart, Morgan said she found it difficult at first to adapt to the melodramatic, large musical style. The move to Harral was not a challenge since Morgan has been involved in Kensmoe’s opera scenes performances but the acting style was more of a shock to her system.
“Even the speech in musical theatre is somewhat more musical than in straight theatre,” she said. “It is all a hyperbole of life, that that is what’s hard to get used to. Mr. Kensmoe has to keep reminding me that I’m in a musical.”
Morgan’s cast mate Thomas Hoffman, who plays the role of Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza, said he equally enjoys his role and the challenges of the musical theatre genre, the first such experience for him in his acting career.
“I just love Sancho. He knows Don Quixote is crazy and that all these ideas are in his head, but he wants to believe it so badly that he follows him anyway, and it becomes more real to him,” said Hoffman, a senior from Alaska who has been in many WBU productions in his four years. “Sancho is a delightful and lovable character.”
Hoffman echoed Morgan’s thoughts that the larger style of the musical, especially given the proscenium stage of Harral, has been an adaptation challenge. But he has found great enjoyment and valuable lessons in his role alongside the man who for years has been his director.
“The best part about this show is getting to act with Dr. Runnels, and I’ve always wanted to do this. It’s fun being his sidekick,” Hoffman said. “It’s assuring to see that the process I’ve learned from him is being put into action. It just reaffirms that learning.”
As a graduating senior, Hoffman said he’s glad he could have the experience of the large musical production before leaving Wayland, though the singing aspect is a little more foreign. With no formal musical training in his past, he said the role with its singing lineup might be daunting if the music wasn’t so fun.
“I get to play on stage, really, and hop around on that playground of a set, so it’s fun,” Hoffman said. “This show will have a massive draw for folks, especially those who have had a dream others don’t agree with. As an artist and a Christian, that’s basically what we do – believe the unbelievable.”
Man of La Mancha will take the Harral Auditorium stage at 8 p.m. Feb. 19, 20 and 21 and for a matinee at 2 p.m. on Feb. 22. Tickets are $14 for adults and $6 for alumni and students. The show is being staged in conjunction with Wayland’s Centennial Homecoming. Tickets may be reserved by calling the box office at (806) 291-1089.
The cast also includes Katie Word as Fermina and understudy for Aldonza; Dr. David Howle as the governor/innkeeper; Bobby Hon as padre/muleteer; Kris Branson as Duke/Dr. Carrasco/Knight of the Mirrors; Mathew Whitson as Barber/Juan; Victoria Wiley as Antonia; Elizabeth Carleo as Maria; Rachel Steed and Christal Patterson as slaves/Moorish girls; Laura Coleman as the housekeeper; Artega Wright as Moor/Paco; Adam Maddox as Pedro; Jeremy Contreras as Anselmo; Jake Miser as Jose; Gerardo Olivares as Tenorio; Josh Smith as the guitarist; Sarah Buckland, Morgan Switzenberg, Corinna Browning, Lesley Gatlin and Christal Patterson playing various roles as guards, prisoners and serving girls; Rachel Steed, Kristi Morris, Elizabeth Carleo and Michele Ritter as dancers and singers; and Alex Hall and Rebecca Ballinger as personal assistants.
The crew is led by Corinna Browning as stage manager, Amanda Allen on lights, Michael Callahan on sound, Sarah Buckland on costumes and makeup, and Adam Maddox, Lesley Gatlin and Laura Coleman on props.