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This review by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 11, 1999. All rights reserved.

Review: `Man of La Mancha’

If there were a fictional man of the millennium, it

might be Don Quixote.

Miguel de Cervantes’ novel "El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote,

Man of La Mancha," appeared in two parts, 1605 and 1615, and was

an immediate bestseller. Over almost four centuries the Spanish classic

has had a seminal effect on western literature, inspired an opera,

a pen-and-ink drawing by Picasso, an adjective, "quixotic,"

an expression, "tilting at windmills," and this 1966 Broadway

musical adapted by Dale Wasserman, with memorable music by Mitch Leigh

and lyrics by Joe Darion.

You’ve seen it? No matter, catch this performance. It’s by Princeton

Opera, an area troupe with fine singing voices and performers who

can act. Performances, which began at the Peddie School last month,

continue at the Washington Crossing State Park Open Air Theater through

Saturday, August 14.

The first part of the novel was probably conceived by Cervantes while

in prison. Wasserman sets the entire musical within a dark prison

vault in Seville, Spain, at the time of the Inquisition, and (within

the same set) various places in Cervantes’ imagination (and so the

audience’s). Only scattered low pieces of furniture are rearranged

and dimmed projections of a moon, a tree, a hospital window appear

at the rear of the set.

Cervantes, the gentleman, is tossed into prison. Scruffy riffraff

are already in the room. They yank his clothes from his trunks, then

seize his manuscript of "Don Quixote." To save it from being

destroyed, Cervantes agrees to a trial before his fellow prisoners,

where, he is told, he will probably be found guilty. His defense is

the manuscript, the musical’s story. He changes himself into Don Quixote,

making up before the audience. David W. Kaiser does an admirable job

of playing the dual role. Although he does not resemble the tall,

gaunt, elderly gentleman that is the fictional Don Quixote, his acting

and singing are compelling.

The book and musical tell the story of Alonso Quijano, a man crazed

by the excessive reading of popular romances of chivalry. He fancies

himself a knight, puts on armor, calls himself Don Quixote, takes

for his squire the loyal Sancho (Brian J. Rowe); the two ride out

on mop handles for horses. Quixote’s illusions are not punctured

by the realistic Sancho: he goes into battle against windmills, which

he sees offstage, thinking them giants. He comes back onstage battered,

blaming an enchante, his sword (a fencing foil) comically bent. He

thinks that galley slaves, again seen offstage, are oppressed gentlemen.

He takes as his lady a kitchen slut at an inn, Aldonza (Kristin Passantino),

whom he dubs Dulcinea. Passantino’s voice is strong and pure. And,

later, he rhapsodizes that a barber’s shaving basin is the "Golden

Helmet of Mambrino."

Just when you want some opposing force in this fiction within a fiction,

there’s an ironic scene with Quijano/Quixote’s niece, Antonia (Elena

Meulener), the Padre (James Petro), his housekeeper, and Dr. Carrasco

(Steven Stadia), Antonia’s fiance, who is embarrassed to marry into

a family where there’s madness.

Finally, in a wonderfully comic scene, the humble Quixote, after an

on-stage fight over Dulcinea, is dubbed a knight at his request by

an innkeeper whom Quixote calls "lord of the castle."

The latter part of the play moves in and out of reality. Is Quixote

really mad or mad knowingly? Quixote comments on "man’s murderous

ways toward man," and philosophizes "when life itself is lunatic,

who knows where madness lies?" And "facts are the enemy of

truth." (Note: Henry Hyde, House Judiciary chairman, was given

an original cast recording during the recent impeachment of President

Clinton.)

My one criticism of this outstanding, painterly production is the

volume of the live orchestra that sometimes drowns out the singers’

voices.

Quixote’s philosophy is so incisive that when he is "cured"

of his madness, is made to "look into the mirror of reality,"

there’s sadness. But Aldonza appears, adopting his old illusion: Quixote

has convinced her she’s the chaste lady Dulcinea. Quixote dies, and

Cervantes, acquitted by the other prisoners, goes off to face the

real court, the Inquisition. And the wonderful songs linger with the

audience.

— Joan Crespi

Man of La Mancha, Open Air Theater, Washington Crossing

State Park, 609-737-1826. Presented by Princeton Opera. $7. Wednesday,

August 11, through Saturday, August 14, at 8:30 p.m.


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