Voices propel The Princeton Festival’s straightforwardly solid staging of “Man of La Mancha” into an expressive, engaging show that make you eager for the places in Miguel de Cervantes’s timeless story of Don Quixote when characters burst into song.
Michael Dean Morgan’s handsome production plays more like an opera than a Tony-winning piece of musical theater. Book scenes by Dale Wasserman are executed well, but the flash comes when a universal cast of glorious singers beautifully perform Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s potential trap of a score.
I say “trap” because Leigh’s music has a constant and plangent thrump-de-tump rhythm that can lead performers to become sing-song and lose some of the feeling and wit in Darion’s lyrics to its strongly pervasive meter.
Not in Princeton. Jesse Malgieri is a thoughtful, inviting Quixote/Quijana/Cervantes whose limber baritone captures the color, textures, and philosophy of his character’s songs. Like many fine and popular songs, “La Mancha’s” “Impossible Dream” has been heard so often, it’s become almost a cliche, trite instead of inspirational and meaningful.
But Malgieri doesn’t waste Leigh and Darion’s soaringly noble sentiments. He sings Darion’s words with conviction. Malgieri makes you listen to the ideals Quixote expresses to Aldonza (Sandra Marante) and appreciate their basic merit. He shows you Quixote’s sincerity so the sense of familiarity fades, and the sweet, simple goodness of Quixote’s heroic quest prevails and registers as heroic. “The Impossible Dream” is restored to the epiphany Leigh and Darion designed it to be. And when Quijana, Aldonza, and Sancho Panza (Jordan Bunshaft) reprise it at the end of the show, it exudes more warmth and emotion than usual.
Malgieri sets a tone beyond his singing. His sweeping style as a storyteller establishes and maintains “La Mancha’s” interest, and the clarity and command in his singing voice translate to his acting. As noted, Morgan’s is a more operatic “Man of La Mancha,” so Malgieri seems larger than life rather than natural, a choice that works in the context of this production.
Malgieri is not alone in having an extraordinary instrument. Marante’s lustrous soprano elevates her numbers, especially her well-acted Aldonza, and helps to create a full and wonderful sound when she sings in ensemble. Bunshaft has, or uses, more of a character voice, but it has great volume and power, so it meshes nicely with Malgieri’s elegance when they sing together.
Additional vocal treats come from Kyle Guglielmo, who displays admirable personal magnitude and intensity as both a prisoner trying Cervantes and as Quijana’s proper son-in-law-to-be, Dr. Carrasco. Patrick James, who made an impression in the festival’s 2015 “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” scores boldly once again as the leader among the Inquisition’s prisoners and the innkeeper Quixote mistakes for the lord of a castle. James is able to quickly telegraph reactions and emotion without being even slightly hammy and is deft with a one-liner. His acting provides almost as much of a core as Malgieri’s singing. Together they give Morgan’s “La Mancha” a highly professional veneer that never flags during the show’s intermission-less 1:45 running time.
The Matthews Acting Studio in Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, where “La Mancha” is staged, is a compact yet open space Morgan uses creatively. An overhead balcony makes a perfect place for the Inquisition jailors to glower ominously. A spiral staircase that seems part of Matthews’ everyday landscape, is cleverly co-opted as a treacherous-seeming way for Cervantes to enter and depart the Inquisition’s cells.
Morgan’s direction demonstrates taste and imagination. The brutal scene is which Aldonza is beaten and raped in retaliation for her helping Quixote soundly thrash some muleteers, excites enough horror while performed pretty much out of sight, with lighting and sound effects signaling her walloping. Scarves, and cloth in general, is used shrewdly in staging the gypsies’ attack on Quixote and Sancho. The only thing that seemed to be missing was at least the shadow of a windmill when Quixote launches into his first delusional misadventure.
Talent means a lot to this production. Wasserman’s book comes through, and you get a sense of his ability to joke, but beyond some strong scenes toward the end of the show, the storyline plays as competent and, to use one of Wasserman’s jokes, diverting, but ordinary.
Another element that sets the solid production apart, besides vocal excellence, are the smart touches, such as making the props in the trunk Cervantes, an actor as well as a writer, carries into cunning surprises. Having a horse and a donkey head on sticks, like children’s toys, for Quixote’s and Sancho’s mounts is an example. And while wit is found throughout the production, Marie Miller’s costumes are loaded with it. Her crowning achievement, all pun intended, is the magnificent silver headpiece she gives Dr. Carrasco when he poses as Quixote’s nemesis, the Enchanter. Talk about operatic! There are a few Don Giovannis and Il Commandatores who would envy the plumed bird atop Carrasco’s helmet.
And then there’s the muscularity of the muleteers, who love as rough and randy as Cervantes describes, and as the prisoners who play them, with Tommy Evich’s Pedro, Aldonza’s preferred lover, standing out it this regard. Additionally Joey Birchler is perky as the barber whose lavabo Quixote mistakes for a sacred helmet, and Pierre LeGrange brings wit and irony to the padre.
With music director Louis F. Goldberg and his band that keep Leigh’s Broadway Iberian beats from dominating or cloying and Christina Marte’s choreography, more constant and more pronounced than in most stagings of “Man of La Mancha,” Morgan keeps this operatic show moving.
Man of La Mancha, Lewis Center for the Arts’ Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Thursdays and Fridays, June 15, 16, 22, and 23, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, June 17, 8 p.m., and 24, 3 p.m.; Sundays, June 18 and 25, 4 p.m. $40 to $65. 609-759-0379 or www.princetonfestival.org.