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THEATER REVIEW: “Man Of La Mancha” remains a time-honored classic

Get out your hankies – “Man Of La Mancha” is back in town.

I don’t know about you, but this show – like no other – reduces me to tears every time by juxtaposing graphic evidence of the terrible things we to do ourselves and others with a heartrending example of what we might be if only we dared give our better nature free rein.

Dale Wasserman’s 1965 smash hit boasts fabulous music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and a play-within-a-play structure based on the story of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and his most famous character Don Quixote. It ran nearly six years on Broadway (winning five Tonys) and has had several revivals since.

Welk Theatre San Diego’s lovely production plays through Oct. 30, directed and choreographed by Dan Mojica.

The plot has the writer Miguel de Cervantes (John Lalonde) pitched into prison with assorted scurvy types, not for any violent crime but for the temerity of foreclosing on the monastery of La Merced. This did not sit well with the Inquisition.

By prison tradition, every new detainee is tried by his fellow prisoners while awaiting trial. To forestall the threatened burning of his manuscripts for warmth, Cervantes convinces them to let him tell the story of Don Quixote (Lalonde), his chubby squire Sancho Panza (Daniel Berlin) and the “kitchen slut reeking of sweat” Aldonza (Natalie Nucci), whom Quixote imagines to be his highborn lady Dulcinea.

The rest of the prisoners play various parts including a priest (A.J. Mendoza), Quixote’s niece Antonia (Karenssa Le Gear), her fiance Dr. Carrasco (Benjamin Zep Misek) and mother Maria (April Henry), the innkeeper (John Polhamus), the housekeeper (Raquel Sandler), a barber (Lucas Coleman), the frightening captain of the Inquisition (Jason Lee) and several muleteers.

This production is unique in that it uses the acting company as musicians, a move which not only saves money but also seems more organic and authentic. The music – with instruments including a trumpet, three guitars, two drums,
a piccolo and a triangle – is well directed by Justin Gray (playing keyboard offstage).

Lalonde is splendid as Cervantes/Quixote, with both a robust voice and more of an emotional investment in the Don than any I have seen.

Berlin’s Sancho adds the right note of comic relief, while also convincing us of his attachment to Quixote in “I Really Like Him.”

Nucci is a fine actress with a lovely and well trained voice. I would prefer more of a consistent guttersnipe sound for this role, but she rose to the occasion in her signature piece “Aldonza.”

Le Gear shows real talent as Cervantes’ niece in the comic “I’m Only Thinking Of Him,” and Polhamus is excellent as the innkeeper (though a few of the bass notes were a stretch for this baritone). Mendoza has some lovely musical moments as the priest.

The only real drawback is the small size of the stage, which gives a properly cramped feeling for the prison scenes, but gets pretty crowded when most of the actors are onstage. This allows less flexibility for choreography and forces the actors to treat lightly and carefully to avoid tripping over stairs, prompters or props.

Quibbles aside, “Man Of La Mancha” stands as one of the all-time great musicals that deserves to be seen whenever possible.

The details

“Man of La Mancha” runs through Oct. 30 at Welk Theatre San Diego, 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive in Escondido.

Wednesday through Sunday matinees and evenings. Pre-show buffet available.

For tickets call (888) 802-7469 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.