REVIEW: "Man of La Mancha" — Candlelight Pavilion, Claremont
Updated: Jan 29
Don Quixote: “Do you not see? A monstrous giant of infamous repute whom I intend to encounter!” Sancho: “It’s a windmill.”
Question: When was the last time you saw a musical theatre performer stand alone, center stage, and sing a song that stopped a show? These days, a big production number can stop a show — but a solo?
An impossible dream, you say? Exactly. When John LaLonde as Don Quixote hits that long, last perihelion note of "The Impossible Dream" in this regeneration of "Man of La Mancha," the audience can no longer contain itself, inspiring misty-eyed older gentlemen to sing along quietly in the dark. Spontaneous applause immediately erupts and becomes a cacophony, as Mr. LaLonde brings the song to its triumphant end. Meanwhile, the applause goes on and on. Welcome to musical theatre heaven.
Currently at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont through February 22nd and presented in colorful story-book form by a top-flight cast, this highly admirable production seems part of a bigger calling, with its outstanding design elements, lavish set, perfect-period costumes, crafted lighting and special effects. Like some futuristic, luxurious self-driving car, the well-built Candlelight Pavilion can always get you from point A to point B in style and comfort, especially in the tried-and-true classic dinner theatre venue such as theirs. You will never find yourself on unapologetic, driverless tours of second-rate scripts or dimly lit “construction sets" that are often half-finished, as events clumsily unwind. You come expecting the best, and they always deliver.
As the 2020 season’s first offering, the splendid libretto by Dale Wasserman merges the life and writing of Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) with his, accompanied by a score featuring music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. The musical ran for more than 2,300 performances on Broadway back in 1965, winning five Tony awards, initially starring Richard Kiley as the beleaguered poet. It tells the story of the "mad" knight Don Quixote as a whimsical play within a play, performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as he awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition. The work was never meant to be a faithful rendition of Cervantes' life, however, and Wasserman was also quite concerned about people taking the work as a musical version of the novel, “Don Quixote.”
But the musical has been labeled a certified classic, and this newly mounted production at Candlelight is both gritty and eloquent. Featuring the magnetic and strong-voiced resident director John LaLonde as Cervantes /Don Quixote, Mr. LaLonde not only rises to the vibrant lunacy of windmill dueling Don Quixote in faithful adherence, but assumes a finely nuanced juggling of identities and personalities with finesse and flair.
When Mr. LaLonde breaks open his makeup case in a spotlight metamorphic scene, applies his magical shadows, contours and shadings and dons his armor, his features suddenly become a thin, gaunt elderly man with wild hair and crazed eyes, transforming in plain sight into the whimsical character Don Quixote.
And Mr. LaLonde brings the full measure of musical fable along with him, along with a good dose of rueful self-awareness, to a stage strewn with whips and chains and grave threats of Inquisitional wrath. Set in the bowels of a prison in Seville at the end of the 16th Century, writer Miguel de Cervantes and acolyte Sancho join the denizens there as they await their fate.
The conceit of the musical is that the fellow prisoners doubt Cervantes’ ability to defend himself from the charges of trying to levy taxes upon a countryside church, and demand he show his mettle. Personifying a tall, slender, charismatic man, Cervantes becomes part actor, playwright, delusional dreamer and would-be knight in his defense. Some etch him as a romantic, some say crazy, but with a nobler vision of chivalry than most in his day. His “Golden Helmet of Mambrino” is a shining moment in the show.
Calling on Chuck Ketter’s strong direction as well as his stark yet gleaming set of a prison, the Fullerton College Professor Emeritus has staged the show splendidly, with equal amounts of excitement and tears. His fast-paced, creative direction is actually electrifying, sharpening the focus of the piece by allowing the score to drive the narrative. Even if you've seen “Man of La Mancha” many times before, this production will no doubt surpass your expectations.
The other main star of the story is the fiery Aldonza/ Dulcinea in the form of Monika Peña, receiving ebullient glows from aesthetes and critics alike. A little rough on the outside, but with a gentle heart inside, her days are divided into part-time server and part-time strumpet. Nevertheless, Quixote looks beyond her indiscretions and falls in love with her, becoming his “lady of honor,” renaming her Dulcinea. Among Ms. Peña’s powerhouse repertoire in the show are “It’s All the Same,” “Reprise: Dulcinea,” and “What Does He Want of Me?” all incredible numbers in which her raw emotions become razor-edged, showing masterful deliveries and execution.
Her character of a regularly abused firebrand hellion is played with just the right amount of sullenness, and presented as a complex woman trying to find her own self-worth and dignity in tough conditions. And Ms. Peña handily fills her mantle with layers of complexity. But instead of finding a life of decency, she is humiliated; there is a scene suggesting sexual mob violence against Aldonza from the defeated Muleteers in retaliation for her assistance to Don Quixote’s noble battle with them.
Much of the script’s dialogue seems etched in illumination, but is also punctuated with fulgurating retorts and rejoinders from the supporting cast. The narrative, both grand and intimate in the hands of this entrancing group, features some rather stunning and tempestuous presences, including the Knight of the Mirrors (Aaron Pyle), who also plays the Duke to a fare-thee-well and the group’s scientist, Dr. Carrasco. Mr. Pyle effectively scares the living daylights out of everyone in the room with an incredibly menacing entrance that you would have to see to believe.
Gary Reinschmidt, a Candlelight resident artist, is the strong but fair Governor as well as Innkeeper, AKA: leader of the prisoners’ society in the dungeon. Two numbers attributed to Mr. Reinschmidt are “The Dubbing,” (joined by Quixote) and “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” with a strong part in the quintet number by the good hotelier, showing off a vibrant vibrato in both. The Innkeeper’s feisty, shrewish wife, Maria, is played by the versatile Lisa Dyson, who also sings in that same song.
And Ramiro Garcia, who lifts the mood whenever he comes on as sidekick Sancho Panza (and perfect naturalistic foil for Mr. LaLonde’s quixotic dreams) is the loyal manservant to Cervantes and a pivotal player. He remains devoted to his master however full of idiosyncrasies, as discovered in two of his many numbers, “The Missive,” immediately followed by “I Really Like Him.” The kindly, sympathetic Cleric, Jason W. Webb, also contributes his vocal prowess in “To Each His Dulcinea” and “The Psalm,” among others.
Additional supporting cast were made up of the finest players in Southern California, indicatively, Francesca Sola as Alonso Quijana’s self-centered niece and Dr. Carrasco’s fiancée, Antonia (featured in “I’m Only Thinking of Him”) not to mention housekeeper Mary Murphy-Nelson, who always finds a bit of takeoff in a role, regardless of the gravity, and who sailed through “We’re Only Thinking of Him” with all eyes on her. On a more somber note, head muleteer, Pedro (Abel Miramontes), a mean and vicious man, leads the attack on Aldonza/Dulcinea (Ms. Peña’s purview), using a bull whip no less.
Max Herzfeld as inmate Jose, also doubles as the comical barber, who appears briefly, but hard to forget, as he brings us the Golden Helmet (a shaving dish). His appropriately named “Golden Helmet of Mambino,” and “Barber’s Song” were highlights of candor and levity in an already jaunty show. And all amidst a chorus of roguishly handsome mule-drivers and beautifully wanton wenches, along with the occasional Inquisitor. Add some great atmosphere, and you’ve got everything you want theater to be.
Among the other Muleteers doomed to the dungeon are Fernando Arellano (Guitar Player), Alden Bettencourt (Tenorio), Sean Gurguis (Anselmo), Max Herzfeld (Jose), Guy Noland (Juan) and Micah Tangermann (Paco). The Inn’s servant girl, Fermina, is played perfectly by Betty Campbell, who also is a Moorish/Gyspsy dancer.
Quixote's story, in the Wasserman version, resonated perfectly with the zeitgeist of the 1960s, where young people challenged authority wherever they found it, battled prevailing mores, and even questioned definitions of sanity, all in the name of constructing a more perfect world. The musical's centerpiece number, "The Impossible Dream," rang true with the public's against-all-odds mentality at the time, and was one of the last songs from musical theatre to be featured on Top 40 radio.
But you can actually feel that conviction in the air even now as you witness one of the most richly, poignant moments in the show. Cervantes is now called by the high court and slowly ascends the dungeon drawbridge in the final scene to begin yet another, more real trial this time. But no longer the cruel, brutish lot as in the beginning, these prisoners now pay tribute and respect to the noble spirit of Don Quixote who insists on seeing light amid darkness, goodness amid evil, with that same, rousing number, “The Impossible Dream.” And that spirit of the show will continue to live on, despite today's turbulent times.
The brilliant cast of “Man of La Mancha” includes John LaLonde (Miguel de Cervantes / Don Quixote / Alonso Quijana), Monika Peña (Aldonza / Dulcinea), Fernando Arellano (Muleteer - Guitar Player), Alden Bettencourt (Muleteer - Tenorio), Betty Campbell (Fermina / Moorish Dancer), Lisa Dyson (Maria), Ramiro Garcia (Sancho Panza / Cervantes’ Manservant), Sean Gurguis (Muleteer - Anselmo), Max Herzfeld (Barber / Muleteer - Jose / Moorish Dancer), Abel Miramontes (Muleteer - Pedro), Mary Murphy-Nelson (Housekeeper), Guy Noland (Captain of the Inquisition / Muleteer - Juan), Aaron Pyle (The Duke / Dr. Carrasco / Antonia’s Fiancé / Knight of the Mirrors), Gary Reinschmidt (Governor / Innkeeper), Francesca Sola (Antonia), Micah Tangermann (Muleteer - Paco), and Jason W. Webb (Padre / Moor Vocalist).
Written by Dale Wasserman, Music by Mitch Leigh and Lyrics by Joe Darion, the original production was staged by Albert Marre. Originally Produced by Albert W. Selden & Hal James, the show is Directed and Set Designed by Chuck Ketter; Music Direction is by Douglas Austin, Choreography by Daniel Solis. Costumes are provided by The Theatre Company and coordinated by Mark Gamez; Lighting Design by Bo Tindell of 4Wall Entertainment, and Wigs are by Michon Gruber-Gonzalez.
Candlelight Pavilion’s "Man of La Mancha" is presented from January 17th through February 22nd. For ticket information and reservations, call 909.626.1254 ext.1 or visit the website at candlelightpavilion.com.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Adam Trent