To close its 15th year of theatrical entertainment, the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts has revived the musical “Man of La Mancha.” The musical first opened on Broadway in 1965 and won five Tony Awards, but despite all of its accolades, the show has been revived on Broadway only four times, making it a rare treat to see this show on Long Island.
“Man of La Mancha” is a play within a play, where Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes is the framing device. In the frame tale, Cervantes, a poet and tax collector, is thrown into prison by the Spanish Inquisition for taxing and subsequently foreclosing on a church. When his fellow prisoners attempt to steal his belongings, he makes a deal with them – if he can convince them of his innocence, he may keep his property. He does so by acting out his novel, “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” in front of the prisoners.
The novel tells the tale of Alonso Quijano, an elderly man who becomes obsessed with fighting injustice after reading too many romance novels, and thus becomes a knight errant named Don Quixote. Quixote embarks on a journey to make the world better, even though he is chided by others for his impractical ideals. He dedicates his quest to his “lady” Dulcinea, who in reality is a prostitute named Aldonza whom Quixote meets at an inn. Although Quixote’s misadventures are a bit far-fetched, the show’s overarching theme of pursuing one’s ideals in order to improve the world resonates with the audience.
These events are passionately enacted on stage, with Michael Bertolini playing Cervantes, Quijano and Quixote. Bertolini’s portrayal of Quixote clearly reflects the character’s madness and idealism, with his voice showing both Quixote’s determination and physical feebleness, although there is nothing feeble in his rendition of “The Impossible Dream.”
Similarly, Brianne Boyd succeeds as Aldonza and Dulcinea. Boyd shows Aldonza’s frustration with Quixote, as well as her frustration with her own life, emoting with appropriate fury whenever Quixote insists that she is Dulcinea. Indeed, Boyd’s screams are so intense that the theater reverberates with her anger. The cast seems emotionally invested in their roles and bring the characters to life.
Stephen Treglia, who plays Sancho (Quixote’s “squire”), affectionately portrays his devotion to and sympathy for his master, particularly in his loving rendition of “I Really Like Him.” The rest of the supporting actors deftly depict their dual roles as prisoners in the cell with Cervantes and as acquaintances of Quijano and Quixote.
The set values are impressive. The fantasy versus reality motif is not only reflected in the acting, but also in the scenery — the only set is the dark and grim dungeon that Cervantes is jailed in. The dull gray colors of the cobblestone walls contrast with the fanciful movements and speech of Quixote. The costumes, too, reflect this motif, as many of the actors wear dirty, tarnished and stained clothes that Quixote, in his blissful delusion, views as royal garments.
Despite being written over 5o years ago, the songs are fresh and emotionally stirring. The melodies are remarkably memorable (which could be attributed to the fact that the composer, Mitch Leigh, wrote jingles for commercials), and the pièce de résistance of the show, the song “The Impossible Dream,” has somber musical swells. The swells successfully capture a melancholic quality that tugs at the heart strings. The lyrics are as memorable as the melodies; unlike most modern songs, which get lost in a stream of random phrases with the occasional curse word thrown in, the songs of “Man of La Mancha” incorporate poetic and inspiring phrases to convey significant meaning.
The theme that it is important to pursue one’s ideals serves as an inspiration to the audience. In the words of Quixote, “Too much sanity may be madness. But the maddest of all — to see life as it is and not as it should be.”
“Man of La Mancha” will be playing at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 22. Student tickets can be purchased for $20.