REVIEW – When the lights dimmed and Man of La Mancha began at the Walnut Street Theatre, I thought, “Oh no, not another one of these plays within a play. Can’t we just leave that to Shakespeare?”
Little did I know, however, that the play within a play isn’t just a theatrical devise with Man of La Mancha, but a means of reinforcing the central themes: dreams, imagination and diversion are sometimes the only things that keep us going in this difficult world.
Man of La Mancha, an adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, opens with a fabulous dungeon set complete with a lowering door, stocks and pits. The author Cervantes is thrown into the dungeon to await his trial with the Spanish Inquisition, but first he must stand go to court with his fellow inmates, a crowd of low-lives and thieves. To divert them from their purpose, he performs his work Don Quixote with the help of his servant, fellow inmates and some props.
The strength of the play is the compelling storyline that diverts your attention from the uncoordinated set and Cervantes’ paltry prop stock. The weakness is that so much of Man of La Mancha is spent on its inner play and Cervantes’ story is underdeveloped.
I didn’t mind too much, though, because I was so caught up in Don Quixote’s saga. As an English major, I’m familiar with Quixote’s story, but this play made it so relevant that I felt as if I were learning it for the first time.
Paul Schoeffler, who plays Cervantes and Don Quixote, is amazing – so amazing that he received a standing ovation during curtain call. Schoeffler’s strong voice is the rock of the show and his rendition of “Dream the Impossible Dream” could turn a cynic’s heart.
His Cervantes is a wise, world-weary man who still manages to have hope and spread it to others. Schoeffler’s Quixote is someone you can relate to. It isn’t hard to see the parallels between the dark worlds of Cervantes’ characters and modern times, and Cervantes’s attitude towards this is refreshing for today’s audiences.
Jamie Torcellini, who Walnut Street Theatre regulars will recognize as Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, is the comic relief of the show. He manages to draw out the subtle humor in Quixote’s adventures without belittling his friend or being too over-the-top. His falsetto also adds variety to the voices of the cast.
Denise Whelan, who has one of the most beautiful sopranos that I’ve ever heard, plays Aldonza. Her rendition of the character is complex – almost too complex for the audience to figure out in two hours – but she does manage to gain the audience’s sympathy.
The chorus is very competent and adaptable, as they have to make use of many props and often portray two characters.
One aspect of the show that was unpleasant, however, was the extreme vulgarity in some of the scenes with Aldonza and the men at the inn.
It was uncomfortable to watch them grabbing her breasts and shoving their faces in her crotch, and the rape scene was really too much. The director could have conveyed Aldonza’s position as a prostitute at the inn with more subtlety.
The orchestra was excellent, especially the brave guitar player who donned costume and played the whole show onstage as an inmate in the prison. Spanish dancing was also incorporated into the show quite seamlessly, and Jorge E. Maldonado and Danielle Herbert were remarkably good.
Don’t go to see Man of La Mancha if you’re expecting to guffaw throughout the performance, because this is not a slapstick comedy. But if you are interested in a life diversion with a hopeful message and great singing, then visit the Walnut Street Theatre through Oct. 21.
For information on show dates and prices, visit https://walnutstreettheatre.org/. Anyone under the age of 24 can purchase a youth ticket the day of the performance for $15.
Emilie Haertsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.