By Jean Lowerison
What is it about “Man of La Mancha” that always brings me to tears, no matter how many times I see it? It’s the reminder of what we do to ourselves and others, and the chance to consider what we might be if we dared give our better nature free rein.
San Diego Musical Theatre offers a sterling production of the five-time Tony-Award-winning show through Oct. 27 at the Horton Grand Theatre. Scott Thompson directs.
The setting is Spain during the Inquisition, where the writer Miguel de Cervantes has just been arrested and is tossed into jail to await trial, not for any violent crime but for the temerity of foreclosing on the monastery of La Merced in his other job as tax collector.
There, tradition has it, he must first be judged by his fellow prisoners. Cervantes will defend himself by telling the story of elderly idealist Don Quixote, labeled “crazy” by everyone but his faithful sidekick Sancho (a charmingly funny Jeffrey Landman) for his insistence on dreaming “the impossible dream.”
With music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and Dale Wasserman’s script (based on Cervantes’ epic novel), this show boasts an outstanding cast headed by Robert J. Townsend as Cervantes/Quixote, Jeffrey Landman as his sidekick Sancho, and Heidi Meyer as Aldonza, the self-described “kitchen slut reeking of sweat” who finally gets a chance to feel what it’s like to be treated as royalty rather than “a strumpet men use and forget.”
On a suitably tacky-looking rented set, the Captain of the Inquisition (Brian Doig) occasionally descends the famous, ominous retractable staircase to snatch the next victim, while the remaining detainees listen to Quixote’s story.
Whether Quixote goes off with corkscrew-shaped sword to fight a “monster” that turns out to be a windmill, or charges off to the “castle” he sees in the distance (where he hopes to be dubbed a knight), his trusty squire and friend Sancho humors and protects him.
When Quixote spots Aldonza (a wonderfully earthy Heidi Meyer), he calls her “milady” and renames her Dulcinea, which first makes her laugh and later convinces her that the others are right: he really is crazy. But as time goes on, and she sees him fighting for the right and dreaming “the impossible dream,” she may come around.
This trio is surrounded by an assortment of others including a kindly priest (Joseph Grienenberger), Quixote’s niece Antonia (Francesca Sola), her fiancé Dr. Carrasco (Michael Thomas-Visgar), a barber (Hanz Enyeart) and several muleteers (including Max Cadillac and Enyeart, especially amusing as two Mule Dancers wearing gigantic, fake mule heads while they dance).
These characters are wonderfully written and brilliantly performed. Townsend is spectacular as Quixote, with great acting chops and a voice I would gladly listen to all day.
Landman is adorable as Sancho, who early on tries to explain to Aldonza why he sticks with this crazy guy with his lunatic ideas in four simple words: “I Really Like Him.”
Meyer gives us the most convincing Aldonza I’ve seen, with a voice that can make you believe she’s either a slut or a princess at will.
Francesca Sola’s Antonia gets her turn as she, the housekeeper (Bethany Slomka) and Grienenberger as the priest give forth in the amusing “I’m Only Thinking of Him.”
There isn’t a weak spot in the show, nor in this production. Kudos to director Scott Thompson, who keeps the circus moving, and to Don Le Master, SDMT’s conductor extraordinaire, who leads his capable if invisible 13-member band from their perch above the audience.
The actors do the rest, enchanting the audience from the first moment. Don’t miss this show.
“Man of La Mancha” plays through Oct. 27, 2019 at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave., Downtown.
Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets: 858-560-5740 or sdmt.org
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at [email protected].