Tilting at Windmills—MAN OF LA MANCHA at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

“And maddest of all: to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

Act II Playhouse is concluding their 15th Anniversary Season with a unique staging of an iconic American musical: MAN OF LA MANCHA, which will run in the theatre’s Butler Avenue space from April 29th to June 8th (it’s already been extended, the original run was to end on May 25th.) Based on the 1605 novel by Miguel de Cervantes, La Mancha tells the story of the “mad” knight, Don Quixote, as a play within a play, performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as he awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition.

The musical premiered on Broadway in 1965; it won five Tony Awards and ran for 2,328 performances. It has since received four New York revivals and continues to be one of musical theatre’s most enduring works. MAN OF LA MANCHA started as a non-musical teleplay written by Dale Wasserman for CBS’s DuPont Show of the Month program, under the title of I, Don Quixote. It was broadcast live in November of 1959. Cervantes’ novel, titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, was published in two volumes, the first in 1605 and the second not until 1615. It is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and regularly appears on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published. Cervantes’ story had a major influence on the literary community, as evidenced by direct references in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

Mindful of the intimate space at Act II, director Aaron Cromie took that framing device of Cervantes enlisting his fellow prisoners to tell his story and used it to create a much simpler staging with a cast of only nine actors—who also serve as musicians. The resulting performance is a study in how to mount a musical in a straightforward fashion that really gets to the heart of the story. Aiding Cromie in devising what he calls a “chamber version” is composer Christopher Colucci, who serves as Music Director and Arranger, as well as onstage guitarist. Cromie’s inventive stagecraft has his ensemble moving deftly from character to character to cover the 40 roles in the script. And they nicely carry through the device of telling Cervantes story by grabbing articles within his trunk and from around the cell to serve as props or costume pieces. Colucci’s arrangements support this by employing such unusual instruments as a single snare drum, a glockenspiel and a toy piano. These, as well as a few small percussion instruments support a violin, a bass, an accordion and Colucci’s steady guitar strumming; the viewer never notices the absence of a full orchestra. The other advantage of this is that the performers are not miked, so you get to hear their natural singing and speaking voices, as opposed to the tinny sound I have heard at other musicals I’ve recently attended.

Cromie has assembled a solid ensemble, with Peter Schmitz as Cervantes/Quixote, Sonny Leo as Sancho Panza and Maria Konstantinidis as Aldonza/Dulcinea. Filling out all of the other characters are Jake Blouch, Matthew Mastronardi, Amanda Jill Robinson, Matt Tallman, Josh Totora and Brian Anthony Wilson. All are wonderful singers, actors and musicians. Schmitz is excellently suited to the role of Cervantes, he is a tall, trim man with an elegant air. He commands the stage and Cervantes’ beautiful language. Sonny Leo is a great comic foil for Schmitz, winning the audience over instantly. The company’s work shines in such numbers as “We’re Only Thinking of Him,” “Golden Helmet of Mambrino,” “The Dubbing” and the finale version of “The Impossible Dream.” Schmitz’s rendering of that iconic song is understated, dignified and touches the heart.

The technical aspects of this production are beautifully done as well. Maura Roche has created a multi-leveled set for the cast to play upon that evokes the dankness of an old dungeon. James Leitner’s lighting creates the appropriate mood, while Alisa Sickora Kleckner’s costuming adds to the overall look. Additional sound effects were created by Mark Valenzuela, including the ominous voice of the Inquisition jailor. And Avista Custom Theatrical Services has done their usual fine work creating the appropriate props.

Cervantes’ story has remained relevant for over four centuries because it speaks to something elemental in human nature: the need to make a difference in the world, to stand for something. Even though Don Quixote is mad, his quest resonates with all of us. We all want to leave a legacy behind that says we were here, we made a difference. Seeing his story in such an intimate setting really brings Cervantes’ message home.

Book by Dale Wasserman
Lyrics by Joe Darion & Music by Mitch Leigh
Directed by Aaron Cromie
Musical Arrangements by Christopher Colucci
Vocal Direction by Sonny Leo
April 29th—June 8th, 2014
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002


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