Review: “Man of La Mancha”

Cast of “Man of La Mancha”
Cast of “Man of La Mancha”

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Where: The Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
When: through Aug. 14
Tickets: $50-$55
Phone: 847-634-0200

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Like the title character in Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” director Nick Bowling has made a leap of faith in “Man of La Mancha” at The Marriott Theatre, and it pays off handsomely. But unlike the knight errant in the classic 1964 musical by Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music), and Joe Darion (lyrics), he hasn’t chosen to escape from harsh reality—but rather to confront it head on.

The result is one of the two most powerful productions of this show I’ve seen. (The other was at Court Theatre in 2005.) Bowling strips away everything except the essentials, eliminating the overture, some dance numbers, and most importantly, the intermission. He also updates the framing device so that playwright-actor-tax collector Cervantes (Nathaniel Stampley) and his assistant Sancho (Richard Ruiz) are thrown into a modern holding cell that could be anywhere rather than into a 17th-century dungeon. They’re still awaiting questioning by the Inquisition—for having foreclosed on a monastery—but that could as easily be any repressive governing body, and the fear of the unknown future is heightened by the immediacy of the setting.

In addition, Bowling stages the tale-within-a-tale so that all the action takes place within these alienating surroundings. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s minimalist set accommodates Marriott’s theater-in-the-square seating with open walls, and a handful of benches are rearranged to become everything from a tavern to a church. Ragged clothing and other prisoners’ possessions strewn about are used as makeshift costumes and props. Jesse Klug’s lighting includes harsh fluorescents when a disembodied voice announces the names of those called by the Inquisition and soft spots to highlight emotional moments.

While the atmosphere is electric from the moment Stampley’s charismatic Cervantes and Ruiz’s eminently likable Sancho, both in fine voice, are thrown into the cell and sing the opening “Man of La Mancha,” one of the evening’s real achievements is the clarity of the layered storytelling. The trial of Cervantes by the other prisoners led by the one known as Governor (Craig Spidle) is just one level. To save his manuscript from destruction, he tells them the story of the questing knight Don Quixote who, accompanied by his loyal squire Sancho Panza, tilts at windmills, mistakes an inn for a castle, andinsists that the scullery maid-prostitute Aldonza (Danni Smith) is the Lady Dulcinea. They double as all the characters, with the Governor as the indulgent Innkeeper, for example.

But within that story is another. In Cervantes’ narrative, Don Quixote is really Alonso Quijana, a man so burdened by the injustices of the world who has read so many books of chivalry that he’s lost his mind and believes he should go forth as a knight and right all the wrongs. Scenes of Quixote’s misadventures alternate with those of Quijana’s relatives and priest trying to “cure” him, claiming they’re only doing it for his sake—in the marvelously witty “I’m Only Thinking of Him”—when really they’re more concerned about their inheritance.

The musical deftly balances this theme of hypocrisy with the one of the imagination as a possible bulwark against the cruelty of the world. Yet the latter is repeatedly called into question, and Bowling deliberately doesn’t soften the blows. Aldonza’s heart is the main battleground, and in Smith’s unstinting performance she’s a hardened, world-weary woman who’s so used to being treated like trash she has no hope or self-esteem. When she does open a little to Don Quixote’s unwavering devotion, it costs her dearly in one of the most horrific on-stage rape scenes.

Quijana’s “cure” is almost as painful. Dr. Carrasco (Matt Mueller) and the others force him to see himself in the mirror as he really is, and this leaves him a broken, dying man. The stunning reversal that restores his belief in himself as Don Quixote also is a brilliant theatrical coup: Aldonza, transformed despite all that has happened to her, comes to him and begs him to recognize his Dulcinea.

Besides an iconoclastic conception and topnotch acting by the entire cast, Bowling’s production benefits from splendid singing. “The Impossible Dream,” “Dulcinea,” and other anthems and ballads come through loud and clear. Ruiz’s Sancho brings heartfelt charm to “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.” Smith makes Aldonza’s anguish palpable in “It’ All the Same” and “What Does He Want of Me?” Harms’ Padre renders “To Each His Dulcinea” and “The Psalm” in bell tones. Lillian Castillo and Cassie Slater, who play several roles, have remarkable voices. And the orchestra under Ryan T. Nelson’s musical direction is small but spot-on for the scale of the show.

I’ve seen “Man of La Mancha” so many times, I almost didn’t go to Marriott’s. I’m so glad I changed my mind, and if you’re hesitatng, you should, too.