Most people will recall Don Quixote was famous for jousting at windmills. But not as many may remember seeing the various versions or revivals of the 1964 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. I can remember an early-1980s production of the show mounted by the long-gone Oak Park Musical Theater. It was performed on the very stage where Concordia University’s Theater Collective is currently doing the show: Madison Street Theatre in Oak Park. This new production is lively and thoroughly enjoyable. We are fortunate to have such high quality, affordably-priced student productions in our community.
The well-sung show is powerful, exciting and solidly directed by Stephanie Stroud. The book is by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh was the composer, and the lyrics are by Joe Darion — none of whom are exactly household words. But the musical is a classic and the 20-some young performers are energetic and uniformly strong. This production has everything from spirited dancing to sword fighting.
The two-hour musical is performed without an intermission as it was originally written. The large, energetic cast projects naturally and I never had to strain to understand lyrics or dialogue. No one wears a mic.
During the Spanish Inquisition, Miguel Cervantes, a writer and tax collector, is imprisoned. He is brought down into a cavernous holding pen with many other prisoners, all of whom are awaiting their own sentences. As he, too, awaits trial, he defends himself by begging the indulgence of the kangaroo court to put on a play as his defense. He drafts fellow prisoners to take on roles in this play-within-a-play and offers to entertain them by telling them of his adventures.
David Ziebart is quite moving in the double role of the writer and the charming, idealistic madman and dreamer Quixote. He is the charismatic center that holds Man of La Mancha together.
Kelsey Schultz is a fine actress as the feisty, defiant barmaid and Don Quixote’s fellow prisoner Aldonza, whom he imagines to be his much-dreamt-about Dulcinea. His interpretation of the showstopper, “The Impossible Dream,” causes Aldonza to see him differently.
Don Quixote’s faithful manservant Sancho is nicely played by Robert Pacheco. He is a great foil, ever wide-eyed and expressive.
Danielle Walsh plays both the Governor, a favored prisoner, and the Inn Keeper. Brandon Ellis is regal as both the Duke and Dr. Cassaco.
Anneliese Ayers provides fine choreography and two “Moorish dancers,” Angela Matera and Niki Dobbs, go to town with some exotic movements.
There’s an eight-member band on stage, mostly out of sight, just beyond the action, with musical director Paul Scavone visibly on the keyboard.
I hesitate to comment on this, since I am always a strong advocate for gender-free casting. But there are literally three times as many women as men in this production. Numerous females play male roles. At times it’s a tad distracting. But in addition to the wonderful singing voices, the ensemble displays strong acting ability too.
This is perhaps not a show for children. The narrative layers can be somewhat confusing (there are stories inside of stories) and some of the action gets brutal, such as when a woman is dragged offstage to be gang raped.
The fight choreographer is Brian Plocharzyk. The costume designer is Christina Leinicke.
The set design, a huge prison area with tall arches and an upper-level balcony with a door, is by Rachael Nuckles, who is also the stage manager.
The Man of La Mancha came along in the mid-1960s, signaling a shift in the American musical to less of the traditional boy-meets-girl plot lines to focus more on social issues. The themes of committing to impossible dreams, fighting unbeatable foes and living one’s life with passionate idealism are still intense and worthy of our attention six decades later.