Musical Man of La Mancha stirs lofty ideals, emotions

Chris Vettel as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote. [Photo by Charr Crail.]

Don Quixote is an idea. An emotion.

And actor Chris Vettel, chin aloft, gaze to the horizon, conveys this concept-incarnate expertly as he sings Don Quixote’s opener in Sacramento Theatre Company’s production of Man of La Mancha.

Man of La Mancha is the re-imagining of Miguel de Cervantes’s 1605 comedic novel, Don Quixote, which follows the adventures of an aged, half-mad man traveling through Spain under the impression that he is a gallant knight. But, for the uninitiated, this play comes with a twist.

It begins in the cellars of a Spanish prison, in which poet/author Cervantes (Vettel) is thrown to await the Spanish Inquisition. His fellow prisoners in the holding chamber demand from him a trial of their own, and he obliges–under the condition that his defense is presented as a play: Don Quixote.

Sancho Panza (Jake Mahler), left, and Don Quixote (Chris Vettel) ride to their next adventure. [Photo by Charr Crail.]

The quality and care put into the set and costume design by Eric Broadwater and Jessica Minnihan are immediately apparent. Second to command the viewer’s attention is the obvious musical talent of the players.

Man of La Mancha is interesting in that it demands an added dedication to its characters’ qualities in song. Vettel is at once chivalrous and wild-eyed as he belts out “Man of La Mancha” and “The Impossible Dream.” His sidekick Sancho Panza (Jake Mahler) is silly, embarrassing in his loyalty. And the men surrounding Aldonza sing with such painful derision at her new moniker, “Dulcinea,” given to her by an enamored Quixote.

And Dulcinea. Is this play really about her?

Through actress Nicole Sterling, we see perhaps the most character development in Aldonza/Dulcinea as she experiences adoration, ridicule and, finally, unspeakable violence before we find out in the production’s emotional crescendo whether or not she opens up to Quixote’s quixotic qualities.

Aldanza/Dulcinea (Nicole Sterling, left), Cervantes/Quixote (Chris Vettel, center) and Sancho Panza (Jake Mahler, right) sing. [Photo by Charr Crail.]

In the end, this was a successful production which, as the curtain fell and lights reignited, revealed a Baby Boomer audience filing out of the theatre while two Millennials sat, still in their seats, holding back tears.

Such a quality Don Quixote brings. Absurd. Aspirational. Pained. Not an easy tenor to strike–no less in a musical–but Sac Theatre Company succeeds in this re-imagining of Cervantes’ timeless novel.

A special shout to Gabe Friedman for his memorable,comical performance as Padre, the priest.

Man of La Mancha plays at Sacramento Theatre Company through Sunday, May 13.


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Dave Kempa
Editor at VOICES: River City
Dave Kempa is the founder and editor of VOICES: River City.