UC Irvine celebrates its Golden Anniversary—and that of the Best Musical Tony-winning Broadway classic Man Of La Mancha—with a student production that, despite a problematic use of “Spanish accents,” once again rivals the best our professional regional theaters have to offer.
As any Broadway buff can tell you, Tony winner Dale Wasserman’s book recounts the classic Miguel de Cervantes tale of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote De La Mancha precisely as Cervantes might have done so himself when imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition, enlisting the aid of his fellow dungeon-mates to bring that windmill-tilter’s quest to dramatic theatrical life while awaiting trial by some rather pesky Inquisitors.
Donning Quijote’s trademark gray mustache and goatee, Cervantes quickly transforms himself into the aged Alonso Quijana, whose unrelenting dreams of chivalry and incessant thoughts of the world’s injustices have driven him into a madness in which he see himself as a “knight-errant,” one whose mission in life is “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.”
These are of course the lyrics to Man Of La Mancha’s Greatest Hit, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” just one of the musical’s many memorable songs, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion.
More than just about any of the Man Of La Manchas I’ve seen since its original stars Richard Kiley and Joan Diener blew me away at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion way back when, the Don Hill-directed UCI revival makes you believe that you are in an actual Inquisition-era holding cell.
No props pop up magically out of nowhere but instead appear to be improvised from actual prison paraphernalia. Even the realistic-looking horse-and-donkey heads turn out to be apparatus used to humiliate female captives, and the ingeniously concocted confessional is simply brilliant.
Prisoners recruited as “actors” in Cervantes’ play-within-a-play vie eagerly for roles that often seem improvised on the spot, even the smallest parts created with admirable attention to detail including those of background players.
In fact, the only thing that didn’t work for this reviewer is having the cast speak in acentos españoles that make them sound like Spaniards speaking inglés as a second language. (Would fake Norwegian accents make Ibsen sound more “authentic” in an English-language production? I think not, and the same is true here.)
Fortunately, director Hill has cast his Man Of La Mancha with an ensemble of BFA and MFA theater majors whose work portends major careers ahead.
Sam Arnold plays Cervantes with abundant gusto and his fictional alter ego with quirky charm, whether it’s Don Quijote battling a windmill he mistakes for a four-armed giant or confusing a roadside inn for a castle or believing a serving wench/whore to be his lady fair, and Arnold doesn’t just sing classics like “The Impossible Dream,” “Dulcinea,” and the title song, but acts them with power, commitment, and depth.
A fiery Amy Bolton invests Aldonza with a blend of guts and bravado tempered by vulnerability along the dark, twisted roads the role takes her, qualities reflected in both her acting chops and the distinct shadings she gives “It’s All The Same,” What Does He Want Of Me?,” and “Aldonza.”
As for Sancho Panza, it’s hard to imagine a more delightful Quijote sidekick than Jacob Ben-Shmuel, who plays the windmill-battler’s right-hand man with a pixyish scruffiness and infectious charm, his “I Like Him” and “A Little Gossip” hitting the vocal-comedic bulls-eye again and again.
Supporting players do standout work each and every one, from Nick Manfredi’s Innkeeper/Governor to Nick Adams’s Duke/Dr. Carrasco to Giovanni Munguia’s Padre to Elise Borgfeldt’s Antonia to Luzma Ortiz’s Housekeeper to Joseph Abrego’s Pedro to guitarist Leonardo Moradi’s Anselmo.
Andrew De Los Reyes scores in a scene-stealing cameo as a “golden-helmeted” traveling Barber, with Lawrence Turner (Jose), Mario Montes (Juan), Sergio Salinas (Paco), Ethan Bell (Tenorio), and Laurence Turner (Jose) doing dynamic work as Muleteers, their attack on Aldonza given considerable power as choreographed by Sheron Wray, who finds imaginative ways to integrate dance into what is by its nature not a “dancy” show.
Completing the cast in assorted cameos are the all-around terrific Shayanne Ortiz (Maria), Olivia Pech (Fermina), Sarah McGuire (Carmen), Madeleine Schreifels (Horse), Ilze Mattson (Donkey), and guards Steven Garretson, Nick Powers, and Andrew Sanchez.
Design elements are as outstanding as any you’d see at a major regional theater, from scenic designer Morgan Price’s dark, dank dungeon to Martha Carter’s dramatic lighting to Danielle Nieves’s imaginative costumes (which actually look as if they’ve been improvised on the spot).
Kelsi Halverson’s sound design expertly mixes amplified vocals and one of the finest live (and live-sounding) orchestras I’ve heard in a big-stage production, student or professional, under the expert musical direction/baton of Dennis Castellano.
Last but not least, Man Of La Mancha represents the UCI Claire Trevor School Of The Arts Drama Department’s return to the gorgeous Irvine Barclay Theatre, which gives this production an even more professional air.
Amber Julian is stage manager. Leticia Concepción Garcia is dramaturg. Cynthia Bassham is voice and text director.
Over the past half-dozen or so years that I have been reviewing shows there, UC Irvine has proven itself one of SoCal’s premier training grounds for Broadway-bound musical theater stars. Man Of La Mancha is no exception.
Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.
November 18, 2015
Photos: Paul Kennedy