Man of La Mancha Review - A Musical For Dreamers Everywhere

Don Quixote (Brent Spiner) with his precious new "Golden Helmet of Mambrino." Photo by JohnGanun.com


The knight who tilted at windmills, the faithful squire Sancho Panza, the character so – dare we say it? – quixotic that his name was calqued into many languages – Don Quixote, the seventeenth century masterpiece by Miguel Cervantes, has long remained a well-loved literary classic.  It is no surprise, then, that it has been the inspiration of many works of art, including ballets, operas, plays, paintings, and songs.  The lure of Cervantes' novel was no less strong for playwright Dale Wasserman, who adapted the book into the teleplay I, Don Quixote, in 1959.  Though highly acclaimed, it was not optioned for Broadway, and Wasserman decided to convert the teleplay into a musical, Man of La Mancha, in 1965.  The musical became an immediate success and went on to win five Tony awards, including Best Musical, and Man of La Mancha itself soon became an enduring theatre classic.

A new version with added dialogue opened at the UCLA Freud Playhouse on February 14, presented by the Reprise Theatre Company.  Starring Brent Spiner ( Star Trek) as Miguel Cervantes/Don Quixote, Grammy-winning opera star Julia Migenes as Aldonza/Dulcinea, and Tony nominee Lee Wilkof as Sancho Panza, the musical is just as engaging as it was 44 years ago.  The music, of course, is a big part of what makes it so endearing.  With music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion (both of whom won the Tony for Best Composer and Lyricist), the musical has produced songs such as "The Impossible Dream," a longtime favorite of professional soloists and karaoke bars.  Though not as well-known, the other Spanish-flavored songs, alternately sweet and catchy, are no less lovely.

Don Quixote (Brent Spiner) tells Aldonza about the impossible dream. Photo by JohnGanun.com


The musical itself is a clever take on the novel.  Author Miguel Cervantes is incorporated into the story as the narrator, thus eliminating the need for drastic set changes.  The musical begins with Cervantes being thrown into prison to await the Spanish Inquisition.  While in captivity, he begins to tell the story of Don Quixote, the mad knight who swore to bring chivalry back to a world that had not seen knights in several centuries, fighting windmill "giants" and wooing serving wench "noblewomen" along the way.  The author transforms into the character, his manservant becomes the faithful squire Sancho Panza, and their fellow prisoners also become various players in the story.  With all the actors playing at least two roles (sometimes three), the themes of truth, deception, and inner character are emphasized, and the line between "fact" and "reality" is blurred.  The result is a cast of characters with many layers, and the parallel stories work together as one.

The fiery Aldonza (Julia Migenes). Photo by JohnGanun.com


Man of La Mancha is a more light-hearted take on the novel, as musicals are wont to be.  Much of the biting satire of the novel is gone, replaced with glorified idealism and dreams, and the somber theme of cruel deception in the book has also been gently lightened, leaving mostly the farcical style of the book.  Nevertheless, the musical presentation remains a classic in its own right, and its different focus of "dreaming the impossible dream" is uplifting and inspiring to dreamers everywhere.  The incorporation of Aldonza/Dulcinea as more of a main character adds depth and heart to Don Quixote's story, giving his dreams just a tiny bit of reality.

Brent Spiner does justice to the title role.  His booming baritone voice delivered the songs with great gusto, and his "Impossible Dream" was the highlight of the night.  His intricate performance was thoroughly convincing.  Whether he was the intellectual writer Cervantes, the bumbling knight Quixote, or the lowly squire Alonso Quixano (Don Quixote's "real" name), Spiner gave each character their own depth, allowing the audience to clearly recognize whenever he switched between characters.  His poet Cervantes was genial, mild-mannered, and courteous, with just a touch of theatrical aplomb, while his Don Quixote was overly chivalrous and gallant, with equal parts unfettered idealism and comedic clumsiness.  Both men, however, were dreamers, a trait that never ceased to be etched across Spiner's face.

The innkeeper (George Ball) prepares to knight Don Quixote (Brent Spiner). Photo by JohnGanun.com


Julia Migenes played her role as the gritty kitchen wench Aldonza with ferocity, but her voice felt miscast in this production.  Some of the low, fierce songs of Aldonza felt awkward with her voice, while her lovely operatic tone seemed a little strange for the uncultured, spunky Aldonza.  However, during her speaking moments, she was every bit the tough, fiery Spanish serving girl, who begins to soften despite herself as a result of Don Quixote's chivalrous treatment of her.  Lee Wilkof was an enjoyable Sancho Panza, the outwardly simple peasant turned "squire," constantly full of proverbs that simultaneously made sense and none at all.  With great comedic timing, a clear tenor voice, and a gentleness in his character that betrayed his fondness for his mad master, Wilkof was a perfect subtle contrast to Spiner's grandiose mad knight.  The rest of the supporting cast, from Alonso's embarrassed niece to his worried priest to the cynical Dr. Carrasco to the peaceful Innkeeper, are equally superb in this production.  Director Michael Michetti, who incorporated the added dialogue, manages to give this old classic a fresh take, ensuring Man of La Mancha will remain as beloved as ever.

Sancho Panza (Lee Wilkof) explains to Aldonza (Julia Migenes) why he follows his master. Photo by JohnGanun.com


Man of La Mancha plays at the UCLA Freud Playhouse from February 14 – March 1.  Single tickets are available online at www.reprise.org or through UCLA Central Ticket Office at 310-825-2101.

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