BY BLAKE BOLES, CLASS OF 2013 —
How many of us still like to give flowers? Who among us like to receive them?
How many of us hold the door for someone? Gentlemen, how many of you pull out chairs for your dates? And ladies, how many of you say, ‘thank you’? Who still lets someone go ahead of them in line? Sadly, common courtesy has been in steady decline for some time now, and the art of being a gentleman is on life support. But theatre patrons can take heart, for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is now presenting their revival of Man of La Mancha. Chivalry is not dead, despite what you might think.
Man of La Mancha presents Spanish playwright Miguel de Cervantes in prison, about to be interrogated during the dreaded Spanish Inquisition –a circumstance the real life author actually found himself in the 17th century. He and his servant are cast into a pit with some of the most hardened criminals around, who quickly lay claim to his possessions, including his most prized manuscript. Forced to stand in a mock-trial by his felonious peers, he begins to tell the tale of an erstwhile elderly warrior, Don Quixote de La Mancha. The stage is set for one of the grandest examples of blind devotion, forlorn hope, and unrequited love ever recorded. Honor, heartbreak, and physical torture all hang in the balance as Quixote embarks on his foolhardy quest to attain knighthood and the heart of his beloved, Dulcinea.
Cervantes, expertly portrayed by William Michaels, quickly and convincingly transforms into Quixote, and credit must be paid for creating such a convincing human being from seemingly ridiculous character traits. He brings true pathos and a voice which can be devastatingly sweet, especially in numbers like Dulcinea. His trusty servant Sancho, played by Blake Pfeil, suitably aligns his character’s naiveté to a strong Quixote; deftly appearing as the knight’s innocent squire without being drowned out. Other strong performances include Patrick Boll, who portrays the Duke and Dr. Carrasco (most of the actors play double duty in this production, as the criminals take on the roles penned by Cervantes); and John Seidman’s rendition of the Barber mines every last ounce of gold from his brief appearance in The Barber’s Song.
The set is extremely well conceived by Michael Schweikardt, with his staircase becoming almost an allegoric stairway to heaven, despite the fact that the reward upon ascending is almost certain torture. Michelle Eden Humphrey’s costumes are appropriate, for the most part, though there is a regrettable choice for a pivotal reflection scene. The live musicians are incredibly skilled, and never overpower the acting; much can be said for the audio levels set my musical director Doug Oberhamer. And even though Man of La Mancha has been produced numerous times, director Bonnie J. Monte is able to add a few new creative looks to keep it fresh, yet still maintain fluidity in what can often be chaotic numbers like The Dubbing (Knight of Woeful Countenance).
Chivalry may have been alive and well on stage, but it was lacking in the audience. Michaels received not one clap for possibly the strongest song of the night, the aforementioned Dulcinea. One woman was overheard to utter it’s a shame about Dulcinea’s (Jane Pfitsch’s) voice –a complaint, however harshly stated, that did carry a shred of merit. Some of the music can be repetitive in musicals, but it seems more so in Man of La Mancha. The song immediately before intermission carries considerable shock value, not suitable for young viewers. And the choice of a reflective cape for the Knight of the Mirrors, in which the delusional Quixote must face reality, was cringe-worthy. But these negatives are far outweighed by the strength of the cast, the visual and acoustical beauty of the music, and the sheer strength of Dale Wasserman’s adaptation.
For those of you who still like to hold hands, who believe in the power of good in a corrupt world where honor has decayed, this musical is a sweet song indeed. You will leave the theatre dreaming the impossible dream.
Man of La Mancha, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, runs from October 17th to November 25th; 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ. Box Office: 973-408-5600.