Gary Daniel is, he is, Don Quixote |

Gary Daniel is, he is, Don Quixote

Three years ago, portraying the king of Siam in the Aspen Community Theatre production of “The King and I,” local actor Gary Daniel demonstrated the ability to fill the stage with presence. Not that there had been much doubt about Daniel: A professional actor with experience on Broadway, in dinner theaters from Dallas to Denver, and in a variety of equity companies, Daniel had already taken on such roles for ACT as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls,” Daddy Warbucks in “Annie,” and both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in “Peter Pan.”

But in “The King and I,” the sturdy, physically fit Daniel demonstrated the kind of presence – a physical, vocal, almost dominating presence – required to satisfy the larger-than-life role of the indomitable, regal king of Siam. It is a resource he is tapping into again as he portrays the dual characters of the storyteller Cervantes and his heroic fictional creation Don Quixote, in ACT’s production of “Man of La Mancha.” It is an opportunity Daniel, an Aspenite since 1982, has long been on the lookout for.

“I was thrilled they were doing it, and I was dying to do the role,” said Daniel, who opened in the starring role in “Man of La Mancha” last night at the Aspen School District Theatre, and continues in the musical through next weekend. “It’s a dream come true for any actor; it’s such a meaty role. To stand there and sing, ‘I am I, Don Quixote’ – that’s so thrilling.

“It’s the kind of role where people will sense that he commands the stage – like in ‘The King and I.’ The actor takes command of the stage there too, and that holds true with ‘Man of La Mancha.’ “

Daniel has been aware of his desire and ability to capture an audience from his earliest days onstage, as a schoolboy in the small east-Texas town of Marshall, a short distance from Shreveport, La. “I got a sense of what my vocation would be when I played the black sheep in first grade,” said Daniel. “What does a 6-year-old know? But I knew I liked it a lot. I knew I liked being onstage, and I liked being in front of an audience at an early age.”

Daniel has never wavered from that early desire. In college, in Kilgore Junior College near Marshall, and then at the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo, Daniel majored in theater, with a particular taste for musical theater, a venue that allowed him to sing, act and dance. His taste for show business was confirmed when he landed his first professional job – singing in the stage show at Dallas’ Six Flags Over Texas, for 2 dollars an hour. “And I thought that was great,” said Daniel.

Daniel moved on to Denver in the early ’70s to do dinner theater at the now-defunct Colorado Music Hall. A vacation to Dallas coincided with auditions for the Dallas Summer Musicals, and instead of returning to dinner theater, Daniel had his first equity job. Again, Daniel knew his instincts about his career were right.

“I knew I was in the right business then,” said Daniel. “I had this small role, and Gene Kelly was in the main role, and just being in the same room as him was electric. I did my song in rehearsal, and he said, ‘You did all right, kid.’ That was great. And I got cast as a character out of the chorus, which never happens.”

Daniel stayed on in Dallas, seeking and taking as much acting work – commercials, dinner theater, industrials, small parts on the television show “Dallas” – as he could. He auditioned for the show “Spotlight,” which was to open on Broadway and star Gene Barry, but the show closed before ever making it to New York, providing Daniel with a rare dip in his career.

Still, he decided to stay in New York and “fight the audition lines,” as he puts it. He landed a job with the regional Barter Theatre company in Abingdon, Va., playing the role of Michael in “I Do! I Do!” When he returned to New York, he earned a part doing summer stock theater; and his hard work and connections paid off in a big way when he got a part as Dukes the pirate in the Broadway production of “Peter Pan,” starring Sandy Duncan, a job which lasted a year and a half.

When that run ended, Daniel returned to Dallas for a job at the Grand Crystal Palace, a dinner theater with connections to Mead Metcalf’s Crystal Palace in Aspen. When he learned of Aspen’s long-running, well-established Crystal Palace in the early ’80s, Daniel came to Aspen to audition. With only a short break in New York some years ago, Daniel has been a fixture of the Crystal Palace’s social and political satire show for some 17 years, and now serves as floor manager as well as singer-actor.

While the Crystal Palace provides Daniel with a steady paycheck and the chance for full-time theater work while remaining in a town he loves, Aspen Community Theatre has allowed Daniel to hone and expand his craft. From “Annie” to “Peter Pan,” “South Pacific” to “Damn Yankees,” Daniel has had the chance to shine. Now, in “Man of La Mancha,” Daniel has another part to stretch into; along with the role of Bobby in the play “Company,” the dual part of Cervantes, the imprisoned 16th-century Spanish storyteller, and Don Quixote, the hero he creates to entertain his fellow captives, is one Daniel has long had his eye on.

Part of the appeal of the role is how much of the imagination is used in being transported back 400 years, to the time and place of the Spanish Inquisition.

Cervantes “creates Don Quixote, who actually wants to go out in the world and right whatever is wrong,” said Daniel. “He actually believes he is this knight, and he’s in a time in the world when there were knights and chivalry and ladies and honor. It makes sense to him to become the knight that comes to the rescue.”

The other part of the challenge is in portraying both Cervantes and Quixote, two very different characters. At one point, when Cervantes becomes Quixote, Daniel is required not only to make the character transformation, but to change his makeup and costume on the fly.

“The transition is visually interesting, I’m sure, but it’s hard,” said Daniel. “It’s difficult enough to stand onstage and be able to comfortably deliver your lines as another character, and make the lines natural and believable. Add on the fact that you’re putting on makeup and facial hair and changing character, and then starting to sing and the manservant is helping me with my armor – that’s challenging, but fun.”

If there is one person perfectly comfortable with Daniel’s ability to handle that challenge, it is Herman Edel, Daniel’s director in “Man of La Mancha.” Edel claims to be the pre-eminent expert on the musical: Edel ran the New York studio where the songs were originally arranged in the early ’60s, and he claims to have seen the show performed more than anyone, perhaps 100 times. He has seen a variety of actors take on the role of Quixote, including the late Richard Kiley and Peter O’Toole, who Edel said was dismal in the movie version.

“Richard Kiley was incomparable. You couldn’t do any better than Richard Kiley did it,” said Edel. “And Gary Daniel is right on his heels. He’s going to be sensational.”

Daniel has grown accustomed to costume-related challenges. Not once, but twice – for his Daddy Warbucks in “Annie” and the King in “The King and I” – Daniel has had to shave his head for the part. For “Annie,” Daniel and director Brad Moore tried all means to avoid shaving his head. But on opening night, just before curtain, Daniel became uncomfortable with the onstage focus on the latex cover that substituted for a bald pate, and Daniel had his hair removed. For “The King and I,” Daniel said he had the option of doing the king with hair intact – Lou Diamond Phillips was doing so on Broadway at the time. “But in my opinion, Yul Brynner was synonymous with that role,” said Daniel. “People expect to see a bald head on the King.”

Aspenites can probably count on seeing Daniel – baldheaded and otherwise – in more roles in the future. Though he acknowledges the limited opportunities in the theater world that Aspen provides, he is happy and proud that he can earn a living working exclusively in theater here. He has two young children – a 6-year-old daughter Erin and 3-year-old son Kincaid – with his wife Meredith Nelson-Daniel, also a local actor; he also has two older children, Christopher and Matthew, with his former spouse Cara Daniel, yet another local actor.

“Though we don’t have all the opportunities one would have in a larger market, it’s a great opportunity to do the roles ACT offers,” said Daniel. “Doing satire [at the Crystal Palace] is fun; it fulfills my needs as an entertainer to some degree. But there’s nothing like playing a role like this one.”

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