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"Man of La Mancha" -- Review

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


James Horan as Don Quixote

Neil Harris (Canyon Theatre Guild)

The Basics:
Inspired by Miguel Cervantes’ early 17th century classic, Don Quixote.

Book by Dale Wasserman

Music by Mitch Leigh

Lyrics by Joe Darion

First Performance: Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut (1964)

Broadway Debut: 1968 (The show ran for 2,329 performances.)

The Plot:
During the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1500s, an impoverished storyteller named Miguel Cervantes is thrown into a dungeon. His fellow inmates threaten to steal his possessions and toss his newly written novel into the fire.

To save his book (and perhaps his life), he draws upon the sympathies of the prisoners by reenacting the misadventures of Don Quixote. The inmates become caught up with Cervantes’ imagination, and they become part of this play-within-a-play.

The Character of Don Quixote: The original novel pokes fun of Quixote, reveling in his obliviousness. In Cervantes’ fiction, Don Quixote warns the readers of the dangers of fantasy and the delusions of grandeur. The novel was published in two parts. The first part displays Quixote as a confused, well-meaning buffoon. The second part becomes more serious, ending with Don Quixote’s deathbed renunciation of chivalry.

The musical version, based upon Dale Wasserman’s 1959 teleplay, contrasts a few of the themes from the original material. Don Quixote is naïve and prone to hallucination, but the audience favors Quixote’s imagination versus the brutal reality of the everyday world.

There is much to admire within the dreams of this “mad knight.” Yes, he crashes into windmills, mistaking them for monsters. Yet take a look at some of his impassioned lyrics:

  • “A holy endeavor is now to begin and virtue shall triumph at last."

  • “This is my quest to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.”

  • “To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.”

  • “To dream the impossible dream!”

The above line is from Man of La Mancha’s most famous song, an inspirational standard that for many represents the most beloved moment of the entire production. In the song, “The Impossible Dream,” Quixote contemplates his dedication to virtue, honesty, and bravery in the face of overwhelming adversity.

When I attended this musical for the first time, many audience members whispered along with the words. Normally, this would annoy me. However, their murmured recitation was filled with such reverence for the song’s meaning it somehow added even more significance to the on-stage performance. People envy Quixote’s vision of a realm in which goodness and loyalty ultimately triumph.

Sancho Panza – Quixote’s Best Friend:
Sancho is the ever-patient sidekick and squire of Don Quixote. He possesses essentially the same outlook as the audience. Like Sancho, we can tell the difference between a windmill and a monster. Yet, also like the portly squire, we admire Don Quixote’s delirious pursuit of chivalry. Throughout much of the Cervantes’ novel, Sancho devotes himself to his master in hopes of one day attaining wealth and fame.

In contrast, the Sancho of Man of La Mancha does not have a specific reason for remaining by Quixote’s side. His only explanation is delivered in the song: “I Like Him.” In both the novel and the musical, Sancho’s simple nature and comical proverbs make him the most likable (and often the most sensible) character in the story.

Dulcinea – Quixote’s Lady Love:
Every disastrous quest of Quixote’s is dedicated to the sweet Lady Dulcinea, who in reality is a common servant girl. In Cervantes’ novel, she is discussed often, but never makes an appearance in the actual narrative. She never realizes Quixote’s feelings toward her, nor does she know of any of his struggles.

In Man of La Mancha, however, Dulcinea plays a central role in the story. In fact, her character undergoes the greatest transformation. Her real name is Aldonza, and she is a feisty, miserable “kitchen wench,” who swears and spits at the lascivious mule -drivers who insult and tease her.

When Don Quixote sees her, instead of seeing a filthy, crude servant girl, he sees Dulcinea the “sweet sovereign of (his) captive heart.” Despite her stained clothing and matted hair, Quixote sees beauty and radiance. He seeks a token of her love and she offers nothing but a soiled rag which he believes to be made of the finest silk.

At first she wants nothing to do with his insane notions. But then, she comes to appreciate his unique way of viewing the world. However, when she begins to adopt his philosophy by showing kindness to her enemies because “nobility demands it,” she is assaulted by the cruel men staying at the inn. Afterwards, she rejects Don Quixote’s impractical courtly love.

Yet, when Quixote is forced back into sanity and lies on his deathbed, she returns to him, begging him to reclaim his “Impossible Dream.” She no longer considers herself Aldonza the kitchen strumpet. She has embraced the esteemed title of Dulcinea.

The Closing Moments:
The final scenes of the musical, if performed by the right cast with the guidance of a skilled director, generate a highly emotional response from the audience. I had the pleasure of watching Man of La Mancha at the Santa Clarita Regional Theatre. They must have been doing something right because when Don Quixote briefly revives his sanity and stands proudly yet weakly with his lady Dulcinea and his friend Sancho, I could hear grown men collectively stifling tears, grandmothers sniffling into handkerchiefs, and others (such as myself) dealing with a proverbial lump in their throats.

In short, Man of La Mancha explores (and sometimes rebels against) a complex literary work with heartfelt song and storytelling. Since the show’s creation it has returned to Broadway four times. It has toured nationally, and has graced the stage of countless community theaters. Most impressive of all, Man of La Mancha is worthy of its continued success.

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