The first musical of the Candlelight Pavilion’s 2020 season, “Man of La Mancha,” adds tremendously moving amounts of heart and candor to a 55-year-old show written by Dale Wasserman, who based his book on Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” In truth, this production is so good that it may be difficult to top this year.
Running through February 22nd at the Claremont-based dinner theater, “Man of La Mancha” — which features music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion — is as relevant as it’s ever been as a cure to modern-day mundanity, with a premise that is lush with imagination. The fine line between genius and madness is most apropos here, as audiences become immersed in a story within a story that features the original author of this work, Cervantes himself, as the protagonist who introduces and enacts the legend of Don Quixote de La Mancha.
Bearing no reflection to the scribe’s real life, the character Cervantes, a poet and tax collector, and his manservant find themselves in a prison during the Spanish Inquisition because Cervantes put a lien on a monastery. A mock trial for Cervantes’ possessions (among them a manuscript) is set up by “The Governor,” and as a means of defense, Cervantes sets out to redeem himself and keep his manuscript by telling the narrative of one Alonso Quijana, an ordinary and humble man with a fecund inventiveness, who categorically believes himself to be the knight errant Don Quixote, who, with sidekick Sancho Panza at his side, sees grandiose visuals in place of the real-life quotidian, where battle is to be nobly fought and honor is to be valorously won.
Quixote forges on as a principled man, a living time capsule from the Middle Ages, focused on defeating his arch-nemesis, the “Enchanter,” and earning his knighthood from an Innkeeper, whose inn is mistaken for a castle. Inside, a common woman named Aldonza, who is regularly harassed by a group of “muleteers,” is perplexed by Quixote’s refusal to judge her, but to see her in the most innocent light, dubbing her his “Dulcinea.” However, while in the midst of this adventure, Quixote’s niece Antonia, her fiancé Dr. Sansón Carrasco, and the Padre embark on trying to rectify Quixote’s mental health and deliver him back to a state of “normalcy.” The Candlelight Pavilion’s presentation of “Man of La Mancha” sensitively looks at the juxtaposition of Quijana/Quixote’s self-delusion against the compassion and wonder that rises to the surface of his boundless ingenuity – which is in some ways more human-seeming than the staid alternative.
The inimitable Chuck Ketter is back as both director and stage designer. His incredible staging incorporates an old-world feel, with the use of stone, a rotating center stage, makeshift wooden ladders, and a staircase that comes down like a drawbridge. These nicely align with the period costumes (e.g., long garments, billowing skirts, armor) on loan by The Theatre Company as well as the wigs by Michon Gruber-Gonzales. Bo Tindell’s lighting additionally gives the set an ominously darkened, adventure-trodden appearance that is visually inviting where the characters move with intent and sometimes get into convincing hostile skirmishes choreographed by Daniel Solis. And, certainly, Leigh’s music shines splendidly, full of lament, hope, and purpose, on the strength of the performers’ vocals and the leadership of music director Douglas Austin.
Candlelight Pavilion artistic director John LaLonde takes the reigns of the main role, split between Cervantes, Quijana, and Quixote. As Cervantes, he is idealistic and persuasive about standing his ground with artful reason; as the brave and guileless Quixote, he exudes a sensitive and infectious spirit; and as Quijana, he is vulnerable and heartbreaking.
Of course, LaLonde’s bushy eye-browed, mustachioed, and straggly haired Don Quixote, armed with his endearingly swirly sword, gets the most time on stage and leaves the biggest impression. The sympathetic character sallies forth with a genuineness that never feels like a farce, but instead entertains, earns laughter, and, better yet, respect for being so resolute in fashioning his reality and being victorious in it. Quixote may “suffer” from dissociative identity disorder, but as the audience, we sympathize because he means well and doesn’t judge others, exuding a warmth and chivalry; that is, until he is provoked past the point of reason.
Moreover, this iteration of the character has a tremendous emotional pull in large part due to LaLonde’s impassioned vocals in the title song and “The Impossible Dream.” Surely, there is a hint of foolishness in all this, but it is girded by a buoyancy that we should all hope to aspire to. Ultimately, because LaLonde’s wide-eyed and uncorrupted Quixote believes without fail, we in turn believe him and that, for instance, a shaving basin belonging to Max Herzfeld’s Barber is really the “Golden Helmet of Mambrino.”
The female lead, Aldonza/Dulcinea, is portrayed with a fire-cracking fortitude by Chance Theater’s Monika Peña, who stands her ground as the disillusioned inn server and sex worker, opposite the boorishly antagonistic muleteers (led by Abel Miramontes’ lusting and Micah Tangermann’s hyper-intense depictions), with a scorching, determined, and yet light-as-a-feather vocal performance of “It’s All the Same.” Aldonza has learned to live with her imperfections until Quixote teaches her that her frailties are really strengths and that she is much more than she originally conceived of herself. Learning to reframe her worldview takes time, however, and Peña powerfully communicates a rage, doubt, and sorrowful fragility in “Aldonza.” This is a persona that is fiercely independent but at the same time is not inured to the wisdom of one who is refreshingly not like the rest. And when Aldonza finally comes around, Peña is deeply affecting and sweet in emoting her character’s tenderness.
Quixote’s loyal manservant and the assistant to his adventure, the orange-vested Sancho Panza, is depicted by Ramiro Garcia, who is heartwarmingly affable and beaming with joy in his own way, seeing only the best in his onstage best friend. Panza, who has an endless number of proverbs at his disposal, is happy to go along for the ride, but is also aware of the game that he is voluntarily playing alongside Quixote. Garcia’s self-awareness in this role dovetails well into a terrific one-two punch of comedy and drama that he shares with LaLonde.
As both the Governor and Innkeeper, Gary Reinschmidt alternates between commanding respect and having an open-minded agreeableness. Likewise, as The Duke, Dr. Carrasco, and the shimmering Knight of the Mirrors, Aaron Pyle is at once grimy, then highly concerned if not a little callous, and finally absolutely fearsome. In fact, the “Knight of the Mirrors” sequence is both a visual treat to behold and one that is punctuated by a stirring emotional appeal.
Also notable are the Padre (Jason W. Webb), Antonia (Francesca Sola), and the Housekeeper (Mary Murphy-Nelson), who particularly stand out with their splendid, overlapping vocals in “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” It is a complicated number and the performers dutifully convey their characters’ worry about Quijana/Quixote’s psychological well-being while being effortless in their execution of the song. Webb, furthermore, impresses with his high notes as the Moor Vocalist.
All in all, the Candlelight Pavilion has a must-see production on its hands. “Must-see” can be thrown around lightly at times, but this is a highly involved show that is spectacularly staged, acted, and sung, drawing audience members into a journey that makes us rethink our reality as we know it. As counterintuitive as it may seem, perhaps there is nothing wrong with a “gentle delusion” in a world that is filled with atrocities – especially when this delusion embraces all the great virtues. In the words of Don Quixote, “too much sanity may be madness” indeed, and this epiphany among others will give audiences goosebumps by the conclusion of this “Man of La Mancha.”
For more information about the Candlelight Pavilion’s production of “Man of La Mancha,” please visit: