A Passionate MAN OF LA MANCHA at HPP

by Jack Shaw

The Haddonfield Plays and Players’ production of MAN OF LA MANCHA left the audience members with chills, laughs and tears. And, there is a twinkle in those teary eyes. That’s putting it lightly. HPP’s production was a powerful classic musical that resonated with every audience member.

MAN OF LA MANCHA takes us first to a dungeon in the 16th century. Cervantes appears with servant in tow. The other prisoners attack him and try to steal his possessions by holding a mock trial. He asks them if he may defend his possessions by “telling a story” and if they like it, he keeps his possessions. He tells them the story of Don Quijana, an old man who in his madness believes he is Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight errant. And, with his friend, side-kick and squire, Sancho, they seek adventure. Don Quixote tilts with giants (windmills, actually), believes in righting wrongs and seeing the good in all. It doesn’t matter that it is a windmill he fights and not a giant. It is his dream—the dream being as important as reality. He has won the day. Success is in the doing.

Upon seeing an inn he believes it to be a castle and the innkeeper, a lord who can knight him. He sees Aldonza, a prostitute, whose grim view of life is filled of hate, anger and despair. She declares in a song “I’ll sleep with you or your brother. It’s all the same.” However, Quixote, seeing only the good in her, declares her to be virtuous and pure, and names her Dulcinea, a more fitting name for a lady. Of course, his family sees him as mad, but strangers are actually more kind to him once they see his sincerity—even in madness, and go along with Quixote’s fantasy and while doing so are affected by his ideals–fighting for good, and pursuing “the impossible dream.”

As we entered the theatre, we saw a simple set of “stone” walls with stairs and a walkway above the back wall. We were presented a piece of the dark reality brought on by Inquisition. This incredible set was designed by Amanda Frederick who also managed the stage and the light board.

Members of the cast of Haddonfield Plays and Players' MAN OF LA MANCHA. (Photo credit: Dave Gold)

Members of the cast of Haddonfield Plays and Players’ MAN OF LA MANCHA. (Photo credit: Dave Gold)

The first notes of the Overture gave me chills. The lighting dimmed and the cast of prisoners took their places on stage. Then, more chills with every song. This musical is different than most. With its Brechtian approach, the director is able to use the audience as part of the show. To do this, he creates an invisible fourth wall, and the audience members become more prisoners. This closeness is missed in the film.

Susan DeMinico did a great job with costuming and props for the late 15th century, which also helped set the stage. Props were brought in as needed. I thought the Quixote’s windmill scene might have been more dramatic with a much bigger windmill; however, I do understand the backstage area is quite small. I was impressed with the consistent sound of the show I attribute to Kate Guenther Brown, who directed the music and George Clarke in the sound booth. So often the music volume can drown out a weaker singer—especially if he/she is not miked.

Let’s not forget some stellar performances. Jgar Hellwig was a perfect choice for Don Quixote/Cervantes. He was truly phenomenal in his presence and voice as he nailed the songs that drive the show from the very beginning. I’ve never seen the part played better. Jenny Knackstedt played Aldonza /Dulcinea with the right amount of confusion, anger and love. With her unbelievable talent, she makes mixing song and acting an art…as it should be. DJ Hedgepath’s Sancho was sympathetic and caring and very amusing. J Darryl Spenser impressed me as the Governor/Innkeeper with two totally different character voices. I could go on and on, but the individual praising has to stop somewhere. Kudos to everyone. Ed “Rico” Santiago, the director who put the individual parts together, had a vision and realized it on stage.

HPP’s MAN OF LA MANCHA was an excellent production. As good as I’ve seen anywhere.

If I’m tweaking… Much of the action is down center stage or just down stage so it is best to sit up front. The first part of Aldonza’s abduction/rape scene was lost to the audience in the back rows because the action was so far down stage. The fantasy fight scenes were nicely choreographed, but seemed a little too quiet to seem vaguely real—even for a fantasy scene—especially when contrasting other “combat” scenes i.e., the Aldonza scene I referenced earlier.

For the most part, the invisible fourth wall worked well. I didn’t think it worked when the singer was down center stage (singing to the real audience) with the real prisoners in the background. Even though the wall is invisible, if the actors on stage are included in the action, ironically they are now part of the audience. I recognize there are times when the audience is the primary focus, and then the fourth wall works great.

Enough said about a terrific show. My fourteen-year-old daughter and I both enjoyed the show immensely.

Music by Mitch Leigh
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Written by Dale Wasserman
January 16 – February 1, 2014
Fri/Sat 8pm; Sun 2pm
Haddonfield Plays and Players
957 East Atlantic Avenue at Crows Woods
Haddonfield, NJ 08033


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