REVIEW: "Man of La Mancha" — Candlelight Pavilion, Claremont

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

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.