June 14, 2017

The Princeton Festival Presents “Man of La Mancha”; Cervantes Becomes Don Quixote in the Broadway Musical

The Princeton Festival is presenting Man of La Mancha in the Matthews Acting Studio at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. The auditorium becomes a dungeon in which Cervantes awaits trial by the Spanish Inquisition. A playwright and actor, he entertains the other prisoners — and the audience — by becoming Don Quixote, his creation. There is nothing quixotic about this beautiful production, which makes effective use of the intimate space.

The musical’s book is by Dale Wasserman, who based it on his television play I, Don Quixote. The Flamenco-infused music is by Mitch Leigh, and the lyrics are by Joe Darion.

Man of La Mancha is presented without an intermission, because Mr. Wasserman wished to avoid interrupting the narrative. Except for an opening guitar solo performed by one of the prisoners, there is no music during the dungeon scenes. Only the Don Quixote vignettes, which are set “various places in the imagination of Miguel de Cervantes,” contain songs.

Cervantes is brought with his manservant to a dungeon in Seville, to await trial by the Spanish Inquisition. The other prisoners, led by a “governor,” also place them on trial. If Cervantes is found guilty, he will surrender his possessions — costumes, makeup, and a mysterious manuscript — and the manuscript will be burned. Cervantes begs the prisoners to permit his defense to be in the form of a play. He uses his makeup kit to become Alonso Quijana, an old man who identifies himself as Don Quixote de La Mancha.

Quixote and his “squire” Sancho Panza, a role played by Cervantes’ manservant, set out to restore chivalry and battle a “bleak and unbearable world.” Before long, Don Quixote mistakes a windmill for a four-armed giant. After losing the “battle,” he blames an imagined enemy, The Dark Enchanter.

As the story unfolds, Cervantes assigns roles to the prisoners, making them a part of his play. At a roadside inn — which Quixote imagines is a castle — a rough gang of leering muleteers harasses Aldonza, the inn’s feisty serving girl and prostitute.

Quixote believes Aldonza to be the Lady Dulcinea, to whom he has sworn loyalty. He serenades her with “Dulcinea,” a song that is mockingly imitated by the muleteers.

Antonia, Quijana’s niece, is engaged to the snobbish and cynical Dr. Carrasco, and wishes to ensure that she will not be embarrassed by her uncle’s eccentric behavior. Carrasco plots to force Quijana to return home. 

At the inn, Sancho attempts to court Aldonza on Don Quixote’s behalf, but she bitterly rejects the advances. Aldonza contemplates Quixote’s behavior, and the muleteers tauntingly serenade her with “Little Bird, Little Bird.” Later, this song will accompany a stylized but brutal sequence in which the muleteers rape and beat her.

Aldonza encounters Quixote in the “courtyard” and asks about his eccentric behavior. Quixote explains that his “quest” is to dream “The Impossible Dream.”

A signature ballad both for the musical and the character, “The Impossible Dream” has been performed in concert by singers such as Elvis Presley, Jim Nabors, and Susan Boyle. Its genesis is a speech written for the television play.

Quixote and Sancho resume their travels but have to return to the inn after their horse and donkey are stolen by a band of gypsies. Quixote sees that Aldonza is bruised, and vows to avenge her. She angrily recounts her life experiences, and begs him to leave her alone.

Later, after Cervantes announces that the story is over, the dissatisfied prisoners reject the ending and prepare to burn his manuscript. Cervantes asks them to let him present one final scene.

The musical is well served by the intimate venue. The audience is on three sides of the stage, and on the same level as the prisoners — and therefore is part of the action. Director Michael Dean Morgan and choreographer Cristina Marte make deft staging choices. Antonia and Dr. Carrasco circle Quijana as they plot against him, as he is at the center of their plans. Effective choreography underlines the predatory sexuality of the muleteers, and the deviousness of the gypsies.

To the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote, Jesse Malgieri brings a rich baritone voice and a heroic resolve. While Malgieri loses some of Quixote’s vulnerability, he aptly portrays the character’s determination to pursue his quest, however imagined or misguided. Malgieri’s performance of Quixote’s two signature songs — “The Impossible Dream” and the rousing “I, Don Quixote” — is worthy of Richard Kiley and Brian Stokes Mitchell, both of whom performed the role on Broadway.

Sandra Marante brings an exquisite soprano voice to Aldonza, as well as a fiery temper that masks the character’s pain. Although Quixote is the title character, many of his actions are centered on Aldonza, and her character undergoes the most dramatic change. Marante depicts Aldonza’s character arc with finesse.

As Sancho, Jordan Bunshaft is an apt counterpart to Malgieri’s Quixote. Where Quixote is heroically determined — almost debonair — in his folly, Sancho is bumbling and unquestioningly loyal, though aware of the absurdity of Quixote’s world. This is countered by Aldonza’s incredulity. Malgieri, Marante, and Bunshaft have an entertaining chemistry between them. Patrick James as the gruff but understanding Governor/Innkeeper, Kyle Guglielmo as the oily Carrasco, and Lance Channing as the Captain of the Inquisition round out the cast.

Like the principal cast members, the production designers complement each other well. The austerity of Wesley Cornwell’s set and David Jonathan Palmer’s lighting, which befits the dungeon setting, is countered by the bright color brought by Marie Miller’s costumes. Miller’s work is particularly effective in a scene where Quixote is forced to confront another knight; and a torn but armored costume for Aldonza.

There are a few places where the script could have taken more time to establish certain characters’ histories or motivations, particularly toward the end. As it is, there are story developments the audience is asked to accept at face value. However, the show is unwavering in its focus, and in the message it wishes to convey.

Mr. Leigh’s music is highly memorable and rhythmically distinctive. Mr. Darion’s often poignant and uplifting lyrics offset the grim action of the bittersweet story. The score is given a strong performance by actors who palpably enjoy the material. This first-rate production ensures that the audience, like the prisoners, will enjoy being drawn in by the tale.

“Man of La Mancha” will play in the Matthews Acting Studio at Princeton University, 185 Nassau Street in Princeton, through June 25. For tickets call (609) 258-2787 or visit http://princetonfestival.org/event/2017-musical.