Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
Wrapping up its 43rd season, Delaware Theatre Company (DTC) is presenting an invigorating production of Man of La Mancha. Beautifully staged by Matt Silva (DTC’s executive director), it features inventive musical direction by Ryan Touhey and first-rate work from its entire company.
Book writer Dale Wasserman freely adapted this work from two sources: the life of 17th-century writer Miguel de Cervantes (the “Shakespeare of Spain”) and his beloved novel Don Quixote. Set like its sources during the infamous Spanish Inquisition, La Mancha opens in a dungeon, where poet-actor-tax collector Cervantes (Scott Langdon) is imprisoned with his sidekick Sancho Panza (Victor Rodriguez Jr.) for daring to place a lien on a monastery.
Prison inmates are ready to rob the newcomers, but to placate them, Cervantes pulls costumes and makeup out of his trunk and—à la the 1001 Arabian Nights—buys time by telling a fanciful story. He transforms himself into Don Quixote (a gentleman whose love of chivalry has addled his mind), spinning a picaresque tale about the exploits of this “knight.” Prisoners become characters on his “quest,” chief among them the serving wench and sex worker Aldonza (Sierra Wilson). Quixote dubs her Dulcinea, the lady for whom he will undertake his knightly deeds.
Vivid and well-realized
Man of La Mancha is a musical, but it’s also a morality play drawing from medieval influences, Catholic dogma (“we walk by faith and not by sight”), and classic dramatic tropes. The tripled “play-within-a story-within-another-story” tale-telling creates plot intricacies that challenge both director and audience. But Silva’s staging makes the convoluted plot as clear as possible, and the multiple narratives and character changes are well-realized.
Forefront in this balanced (and large) company of 18 actors/musicians is Langdon, whose strong, vivid characterization of Cervantes/Quixote ably grounds the production dramatically and emotionally. Anyone playing this character must climb the mountain of “The Impossible Dream,” the show’s major mainstream hit. Langdon reached this peak in great dramatic form, and his rendition of the song at the top of Act II stopped the show.
As clear-eyed sidekick to the quixotic (yes, the word originated here) hero, Rodriguez provides a welcome foil, with comic songs like “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.” And as Aldonza/Dulcinea, Wilson is a powerhouse. Her ballad “What Does He Want of Me?” is the philosophical centerpiece of the show, but nuances that eluded this actor could have enhanced her transformation.
Making Man of La Mancha
DTC’s production displays marvelous stagecraft: thoughtful, creative, always serving the complex narrative and aided by a magnificent scenic design. Chris Haig crafted playing areas with tale-telling details: sculpted stone walls, remarkable set-painting, gloomy corridors, wall sconces dripping with years of accumulated wax. His set is capped by a massive wooden staircase whose hemp ropes dramatically raise and lower it with bone-chilling creaks and groans, products of the excellent sound design by Ryk Lewis, which features an amplification balance that’s simply the best I’ve heard in this or any small house. Costumes (Constance Case) and lights (Alyssandra Docherty) are perfectly pitched as well.
Silva is most strongly partnered by Touhey’s unique musical direction and orchestration. As the show opens, a solo guitarist strolls onstage, soon joined by other cast members. There is no offstage orchestra; the actors play all instruments, accompanying themselves to wonderful effect. Five guitars reflect the Spanish flavor of the original music (which substituted them for traditional strings), along with a cello, violin, accordion, clarinet, percussion, and a hidden keyboard.
Touhey’s work is clever without being coy, and it’s sublimely effective. There are few “hummable” tunes here—of the show’s 28 musical numbers (some reprises), many of Mitch Leigh’s songs and Joe Darion’s narrative lyrics advance the intricate story—but Touhey and the cast create remarkable musical momentum.
A new age for American musicals
The musical was first staged in 1965 at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House and soon moved to Broadway, where it played for 2,200 performances and won five Tony awards. Since then, there have been multiple Broadway revivals, major national tours, scores of international productions, and a film—all featuring a panoply of stars. There was even a major poet involved: the show’s original lyricist was W. H. Auden, whose biting satirical work was rejected.
Man of La Mancha may be 68 years old, but it still feels topical. With its complex, meandering structure, it was a transition from the age of the big tuneful American canon to musicals that grapple more directly with timely issues. That layered complexity is due to the show’s literary beginnings: Wasserman wrote it as a teleplay that aired live in November 1959 on CBS’s “DuPont Show of the Month.” Originally titled I, Don Quixote, it starred Lee J. Cobb, Colleen Dewhurst, and Eli Wallach and was viewed by more than two million people.
The show as written is not perfect, with some inconsistencies in its book that don’t bear close examination. But they melt away here, and the show (like its hero) continues its triumphal march over all obstacles. For six decades, Man of La Mancha and the irrepressible Don Quixote have journeyed on tunefully, tilting at the windmills of humdrum mediocrity and prejudice while thrilling audiences. This finely staged, theatrically dazzling, and thoughtfully acted production can stand proudly among them.
What, When, Where
Man of La Mancha. Written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion; directed by Matt Silva. $29-$65. Through April 30, 2023, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
DTC is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair seating, notify the box office in advance.
Masks are not required.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.