Students bring ‘Man of La Mancha’ to CAC

Though “The Impossible Dream” may be the principal song of the 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha,” the local school-age actors who have dreamed of bringing a fantastic rendition of the show to the Community Arts Center, 200 W. Fourth St., know that their aspiration is anything but unachievable.

After months of grueling work, the CAC is thrilled to bring “Man of La Mancha” to its stage for this year’s Student Summer Stock show at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. The cast includes 25 student actors, ranging from incoming 8th graders to recently-graduated seniors, from 10 different school districts in six counties around the region.

“We have this incredible theater in downtown Williamsport, and it is really part of our mission to utilize the uniqueness of the space as best as we can for the community,” said Community Arts Center executive director Sharon Mack. “One of the ways we can do that is to give theater students the opportunity to be on a professional stage, to have mentorship from theater professionals and to be able to be able to present the show on three occasions throughout the summer.”

“Man of La Mancha,” which drew inspiration from Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece “Don Quixote,” is structed as a play within a play. It tells the story of the knight Don Quixote as acted out by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners, as they await a hearing from the Spanish Inquisition. With a score that’s filled with songs as quirky as they are catchy, the musical idealizes the notion of marching to the beat of your own drummer and not relinquishing passion in the face of adversity.

Being as powerful, hilarious and heartbreaking as it is, “Man of La Mancha” has enjoyed many extended runs on Broadway and in London; and has seen several accolades, including five Tony Awards.

The SSS production of the play will be directed by Aaron White, who is no stranger to working with student actors.

“(White) has been our director the last few years,” said Mack. “Every year, we start a search for the right people to bring together to make this a success, and he has been an incredible compliment to that process for the last few years.

“He has a really unique relationship with the students,” she added. “He is very demanding — as he needs to be — because we are trying to give these students a higher level of experience in theater. But he is also incredibly compassionate and encouraging, and he is one of the most creative people I know.”

White said that he chose “Man of La Mancha” as this year’s SSS production because of the level of difficulty involved with it. Instead of shying away from tough shows, he gets a thrill from making a difficult production work.

“Anytime it comes to looking for these selections, we are looking for something that is going to be a challenge, and that most educational programs wouldn’t pick because it would be too difficult or the resources needed are out of the bounds of that organization,” said White. “‘Man of La Mancha’ is a really hard score to sing and do well, and that was interesting to us.”

He also mentioned that the themes in the show were another reason it was picked, as it deals with many things that are mirroring life in today’s world.

“One reason we picked this show is because of the climate the country is in and differences of perspective, where it is really hard to reconcile one person’s reality with another person’s reality,” said White. “All of those themes can be found within the musical and are addressed. The show has a protagonist who has views that are completely different than everyone else.

“It has great music and a message of hope and inspiration,” he added. “The challenging subject matter was important to me.”

Though it has a great message, there are some mature scenes in the show, so White warns theatregoers that, “It is probably not appropriate for super young audiences.”

“It isn’t going to be Peter Pan, where everyone in the family can come,” White said. “If you feel comfortable bringing your kid to a PG-13 movie, this would work for you.

“There is nothing extremely violent or anything, but the Aldonza character is a victim of her circumstances and there are some characters that aren’t kind to her, and we don’t shy away from those circumstances,” he added. “All that said, I think we have done a really good job of keeping it as a conversation — things that will provoke, but not turn people off.”

With the three lead roles in the show — Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and Aldonza — being written for adult performers, finding young actors to play them was a challenge in and of itself.

“To fill those roles in a high school system would be very difficult,” White said. “Some of the music involves the lowest working vocal range for female singers.”

Rhys Kauffman, who recently graduated from Central Columbia High Shcool, takes on the role of Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote. Of all the leads, he has the most experience with the SSS program, as this year is his third participating in the production.

Soncho Panza is played by Lewisburg High School graduate Ross Wiley, who is brand new to the program.

“Ross was a really exciting find because he is hilarious and idiosyncratic, and he has a really beautiful tenor voice,” said White.

Rounding out the lead roles is Anna Vaughn Stewart, a Williamsport High School graduate, who had to beat out some stiff competition during auditions to land the part of Aldonza.

“I had five just explosive female voices that I called back for Aldonza, and I could have cast all of them,” White said. “For a high school student to be able to sing the songs she needs to sing — I think most professionals would have a hard time with it, but she just blew us away in her audition. She is really great.”

Though the Community Arts Center has been hosting a student-oriented program for ten years now, dating back to its collaborations with the Community Theatre League for Act Up productions, the Student Summer Stock show only started four years ago. That was when the CAC teamed up with Lycoming College.

“Lycoming College has helped with resources like professional instructors coming in and actually giving the students high-level professional training,” Mack said. “They have been mentors to these young students.”

Though bringing a great production to the area is one of its major goals, Mack said the SSS show also has objectives that extend well beyond that.

“Other than nurturing their young talent, it is also important for us to be able to give them confidence, encouragement and compassion towards their peers,” said Mack. “All of those things make this program a very unique program for the region.”

With a rehearsal schedule that requires three hours to be set aside five nights a week, full commitment is necessary from all student actors in the production, even though that means sacrificing a decent hunk of their summer break. Mack and the other staff members of the CAC have seen that dedication first-hand.

“We have the opportunity, as employees of the theater, to see these kids virtually every day for two months,” said Mack. “We even have one student who drives an hour every night to come to rehearsal and then drives an hour home afterwards.”

Aside from their impressive dedication, Mack said it is also amazing to see the strides the students make in their acting during the rehearsal stretch.

“We are able to see them develop right there in front of us,” she said. “One of my favorite parts of the program is just sitting in the audience and seeing them appreciate the level of performance the students give them. It is just an incredible honor to be able to provide this program to the community.”

Since bringing the production to the CAC stage is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, Mack also stressed that community support is essential for SSS shows to prosper.

“This is a very community-oriented program and we would certainly like to see a full house to celebrate what these kids have achieved and to be a part of something that is very significant in their lives,” she said. “We are really looking forward to this production, and I hope with the support of the community that we can continue to grow this program in years to come.”