The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company’s 42nd season continues with a smashing and thoroughly engaging production of “Man of La Mancha,” which opened Tuesday, July 24, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. and is playing through Aug. 4.
Based on Miguel de Cervantes’s classic 17th century novel “Don Quixote,” “Man of La Mancha,” by Dale Wasserman with lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh, first appeared on Broadway in 1965.
The show has a story frame in which a fictionalized version of Cervantes (Larry Daggett) is thrown into a prison to await trial by the Inquisition. Cervantes’ fellow prisoners have their own trial for him and accuse him of being an idealist.
To defend his case he acts out the story of Don Quixote, a simple man who has read so many tales of chivalry that he has driven himself mad and created a fantasy world in which he is a knight. Cervantes asks those around them to fill parts as needed.
In the play-within-a-play, Quixote is joined by his loyal squire Sancho Panza (Patrick Michael Valley) in his courageous quest. Their journey brings them to an inn that Quixote believes is a castle. There Quixote meets Aldonza (Leah Monzillo), a tavern wench that Quixote sees as his virtuous Dulcinea. He shows her tenderness for the first time in her life and she doesn’t know how to accept it.
The plot also features family members trying to convince Quixote of his true identity, which leads to one of the show’s musical highlights “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” The song features complex, overlapping vocals provided by Jennifer Lauren Brown and Liz Wasser. The song also establishes one of musical’s key themes of whether bursting Quixote’s bubble is what is truly best for him.
“Don Quixote” was originally written as a satire of chivalrous adventure stories. Written in two parts, the first was farce, but the second was more serious and bleak with Quixote seen as a madman who was cruelly ridiculed.
“Man of La Mancha” explores these two sides of Cervantes’ work with a light and fun beginning giving way to a darker second half. There is a brutal rape scene that director Richard Sabellico doesn’t shy away from. It is difficult to watch, but necessary in bringing the show’s message across.
Sabellico’s direction throughout is superb and filled with interesting choices enhanced by the lighting design by Victoria Miller. Music director George Wiese has gotten the cast to an exceptionally high level of quality. The set designed by Kenneth John Verdugo and costume design by Barbara Erin Delo effectively creates the 17th century atmosphere.
Daggett is fantastic in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote. He makes both characters distinct. His Quixote is full of bravado and performed with a Shakespearean quality. He has a rich and powerful voice and he sings with a conviction appropriate for the stubborn, strong willed Quixote. He makes the show’s most famous song, “The Impossible Dream” moving and powerful.
It is also a very physical performance with his impassioned and sincere stare getting across that Quixote means everything he says. Daggett makes it easy to see why those around Quixote would like him in spite of his seeming madness.
Valley provides strong support and comic relief as Sancho. Daggett and Valley have a nice comedic chemistry that is played effectively low key instead of for broad, easy laughs. Valley makes the best of his one song “I Like Him.” He sings the song with a good balance of warmth and humor.
Monzillo nicely captures Aldonza ‘s cynical, bitter edge. There’s a caustic anger to her performance that shines on songs like “It’s All the Same,” which showcase her powerful vocals. It is also a subtle performance as she slowly begins to embrace Quixote’s worldview as her own.
The three leads are supported by a well rounded cast. The inn is populated by The Muleteers, a group of rough men, who never the less sing the sweet “Little Bird, Little Bird.” This song later gets a dark, sinister reprise.
Todd Fenstermaker is fun in the dual role of the “governor” of the jail and the innkeeper. As the innkeeper he takes a shine to Quixote and takes pleasure in participating in his fantasies even when they turn aggravating. Playing against type, Craig Holden, who starred as Quixote in 2009 for Arts in Motion, makes an impression as the cruel Pedro and Jake Levitt is funny as a barber.
“Man of La Mancha” is ultimately a funny and moving show with an important message. In a world that is unfair, no one’s dream, however absurd, should be squashed.
For more information or tickets call 356-5776 or visit www.mwvtheatre.org.