ARCHIVE: The Return of John of ‘La Mancha’

Originally published in the Asbury Park Press on August 11, 2006

johndavidsonhead200For John Davidson, it’s all about “learning and growing.” The multifaceted entertainer — whose ever-boyishly handsome looks and genially confident presence have made him one of the most instantly recognizable signifiers of the baby-boomer TV age — is as loathe to be pigeonholed into a single category as he is to retire from his seemingly never-ending tour itinerary. There’s always room for a new language, a new musical instrument, a new acting challenge — even a whole new career as an inventor of award-winning educational toys and games. After all, you don’t host all those thousands of hours worth of  “That’s Incredible!,” “The New Hollywood Squares”  and “The $20,000 Pyramid” without learning a thing or two.

Although the famous face is now framed by a luxurious mane of silver hair, it seems beyond “Incredible!” that this perpetual-motion performer will soon be eligible for the seniors’ discount at his own shows. Unlike other frozen-in-time broadcast “personalities,” John Davidson has always been a creature of the stage — from his 1960’s Broadway debut alongside Bert “Cowardly Lion” Lahr to such mature roles as Teddy Roosevelt in the one-man show “Bully!,” to the international concert tours that have made him such a geographical whiz (of which more in a moment).

Those who frequent a sea-kissed bit of geography known as Long Beach Island know Davidson as something of a seasonal signifier in himself; a summertime visitor who for the past three years has starred in a major revival of a classic American musical at Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven. It’s a recently-minted tradition that continues this coming week, as Surflight presents a new production of “Man of La Mancha,” the Dale Wasserman-Mitch Leigh-Joe Darion musical inspired by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes and his immortal creation Don Quixote.

It’s also a tradition that traces its origins back to 1996, when  future Surflight Theatre producer Steve Steiner was understudying Davidson in his Broadway starring success “State Fair.” After assuming a managerial role at the venerable playhouse, Steiner contacted Davidson about the prospect of appearing in one of Surflight’s summer-season productions — a plan that came to fruition in 2004 when Davidson, looking for a project in which he could work with his daughter Ashleigh (a student at Boston Conservatory and “the only one of my children to be interested in a theatrical career”), suggested a revival of “State Fair.” Since then, Davidson has returned to Surflight in the role of Civil War-era patriarch Charlie in “Shenandoah.”

“Surflight is a Broadway-level place; a place to renew your chops and to grow as a performer,” the star says of the Ocean County cultural resource, which under Steiner’s supervision is on track toward doubling its previous seasonal attendance record. “I felt that I grew while working on ‘Shenandoah’.”

Although the 65-year old Davidson, who had never so much as incorporated the score’s signature “The Impossible Dream” into his concert sets, felt ready to take on the challenges of “La Mancha” and its demanding dual role of Cervantes/Quixote, the veteran leading man expressed some reservations to Steiner, telling the producer that “I didn’t think I was old enough…to which he said, ‘oh, you are’.”

“John’s a very, very, strong actor,” says Steiner of his top ticket seller and good friend. “He can draw so brilliantly, he likes working here, and he’s ready to give it his all with this show.”

“I’m so enjoying playing this madman…it’s fun; it’s exactly in my range, and this will go down as the biggest thrill of my stage career,” an enthusiastic Davidson observes. “Parts like Quixote give me a chance to stretch, and I’d love to take this production further.”

“I think Mitch would be very pleased with this show,” says Davidson of composer Leigh, who resides these days in Ocean County. “The director (Andrew Glant Linden) knows the show very well, and is one of the best-prepared directors I’ve ever worked with.”

“Bruce (New York-based actor Bruce Roberts, who co-stars as Sancho Panza) has played the part many times, and he’s just perfect,” the star says of his stage sidekick, adding that leading lady Heather Provost is a “fine singer; very pretty and very talented.”

Davidson, who serves on the company’s advisory board and who regards Steiner as “a big brother to me, even though he’s younger,” praises the producer as a man who “hunts for the cream of the crop at their auditions in New York…you’ll see people onstage being given a chance to learn their craft and grow.”

Nor does this perennial star of myriad “one-nighters” stand still in his concert career; continuing to custom-craft shows that range from “rock and roll outdoor” to “romantic, ‘Lady in Red’ pop” as well as “songs and comedy,” for audiences that encompass everyone from adult nightclubbers to family vacationers and snowbird seniors. It’s a line of endeavor for which Davidson constantly experiments with fresh material; incorporating Spanish-language songs, working numerous original compositions into his sets and placing  a greater emphasis upon his instrumental skills with guitar and banjo.

Then there’s that geography angle. John and his wife Rhonda — who met during his residency as a Branson headliner and who make their home in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico’s central highlands — became quite the geography buffs as they circumnavigated the globe (and schooled daughter Ashleigh) on numerous tours, to the extent that they created the award-winning educational card game Borderline USA. Having been established with a focus on North American terrain, it’s become a phenomenon that’s spawned several other regional editions — as well as the newest spinoffs “HopOff” (a game of interstate hopscotch played on an oversized plastic map) and “Maptangle” (a similarly super-sized twist on a favorite floor game).

For now, this citizen of the world remains rooted on the Jersey Shore, as “Man of La Mancha” initiates a run that goes up on Tuesday, August 15 and continues with nightly performances (excepting Mondays) as well as selected matinees through September 2. Davidson returns to the Surflight stage on November 25 for a pair of special Thanksgiving-weekend concert appearances. For showtimes, tickets and additional information on all featured performances, call (609)492-9477 or visit http://www.surflight.org.

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