San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Man of La Mancha” is a moving tale of dreams, heartbreak and the realities of Spanish life circa 1594 as two stories unfold on the Horton Grand Theatre stage through Oct. 27.
The first is of a man named Don Miguel de Cervantes (Broadway veteran Robert J. Townsend), an unsuccessful poet, soldier and actor who has turned to tax collecting as a means of survival. Unfortunately for him, he foreclosed on a monastery and — as a consequence — is imprisoned in Seville, Spain and is awaiting trial for heresy since the show takes place in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition.
(The Inquisition was a 355-year effort by Catholic monarchs to identify heretics and bring them to justice.)
His fellow detainees have their own hierarchy in the prison, as Cervantes and his also imprisoned servant Sancho (Broadway veteran Jeffrey Landman) quickly find out.
To save his meager possessions — mostly costumes, but especially a manuscript for a play he wrote — Cervantes must defend himself for admitting to being a poor poet (among other accusations leveled by the prisoners) in order to save the manuscript from being tossed into a fire as punishment. His strategy is to present the tale of Don Quixote, with his fellow cellmates taking on various roles. This is the second story for this play-within-a-play.
Neither the musical’s script nor its staging by director Scott Thompson sugarcoats the brutality of the era, or of men — toward one another or women.
At the center of much of the brutality in Cervantes’ play is Aldonza (Broadway veteran Heidi Meyer) — a working-class woman and sometimes prostitute — who is distrustful and resistant to accept true gentlemanly kindness bestowed upon her for the first time in her life, in this case by Don Quixote. He is a man on a quest to become a knight. Yes, he is a bit befuddled mentally — he envisions an inn to be a castle and goes into “battle” with a windmill he mistakes for a four-armed giant — but at heart Don Quixote is a truly kind man battling real demons of his own that he imagines are due to an evil magician called the Enchanter. (In reality, he is quite physically and mentally ill.)
It is the storyline revolving around Aldonza that makes “Man of La Mancha” a show for mature audiences, as there is an extended scene vividly depicting Aldonza being beaten and gang raped.
In his director’s notes, Thompson wrote that in the era of #metoo “it might seem appropriate to some to temper the depiction of misogynistic violence brought down upon this woman, but do so is to whitewash the very real problems of abuse that continue worldwide today. The realistic depiction of her abuse only serves to heighten the ultimate triumph of our human ability to survive the worst of life and personally fight to attain the heights of Quixote’s idealistic view of the world and to live our very own ‘Impossible Dream.’”
Meyer excels in her role, making Aldonza’s torment — both physical and emotional — realistic. Her pain and anger are believable and the audience can’t help but hope for her to finally accept the kindness bestowed upon her by Don Quixote. She is a strong and determined woman, perhaps by nature, but more likely due to harsh lifetime going back to her birth, as she compellingly explains in the Act II song bearing her name.
Townsend likewise is wonderful in his distinct dual roles for which he repeatedly alternates. The show’s likely best-known song is “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” and Townsend’s rich voice does not disappoint. He doesn’t overdo the emotion behind it and his yearning to achieve his dream evident, even if it means death.
While the show is often thematically dark, the tragedy and drama is juxtaposed frequently with many comedic moments. Some of these are through Sancho — whom Landman plays quite well — and others are via other cast members, including the mule dancers (Max Cadillac and Hanz Enyeart).
The intimate Horton Grand brings the action close to the audience, so none of the more nuanced actions are missed. Thompson did well with his staging and choreography, especially the fight scene plus the earlier mentioned gang rape. The live orchestra — conducted by Don Le Master — filled the venue while tucked away in a space upstairs in the theater.
The 1966 Tony Award-winning musical (including for Best Musical and Best Original Score) is inspired by the real-life Cervantes’ 17th century novel “Don Quixote.”
“Man of La Mancha” can be seen Wednesdays through Sundays until Oct. 27 at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave. in downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp District.
Tickets are $30 to $70. Purchase at sdmt.org, 858-560-5740 or in person at the SDMT Administrative Office, 4650 Mercury Street. A link for discounted pre-paid parking in the garage across from the theater is available through the website.
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