Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Man of La Mancha
Princeton Festival
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's review of The Ballad of Little Jo


Jesse Malgieri
Photo by Jessi Franko Designs LLC
As I waited to take my seat for the Princeton Festival's production of Man of La Mancha last night, I overheard someone mention that all remaining performances of Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's classic 1965 musical, which runs through June 25, are already sold out. As I left the theater two hours later, my only thought was that it's a good thing ticket buyers pay before a show rather than after.

I had such high hopes for this. Man of La Mancha is one of my favorite shows, with a compelling score and a narrative structure that still feels fresh and exciting fifty-plus years after it premiered. The prospect of an intimate staging in the black box Matthews Studio at the Lewis Center for the Arts on the Princeton University campus seemed a refreshing opportunity to strip away the artifice that is too often applied to classic musicals. Having the actors positioned on the same level as the audience creates a sense of immediacy that mimics the framing device of Cervantes recounting the story of Alonso Quijana/Don Quixote to his fellow prisoners, as he waits to appear before the magistrates of the Inquisition.

It becomes clear right away that Michael Dean Morgan's production is a directorial failure. The Matthews Studio is a three-quarter thrust stage, with rows of seats flanking the playing area. In order to make the best use of this space, a director should stage the material in such a way that it plays to all sides of the house. That is not what Morgan has done. His direction favors the center section almost exclusively, and those audience members seated in the side sections (as I was) spend most of the evening either looking at the performers' profiles or having the action totally blocked. I missed many key moments, including the entirety of "Dulcinea" (the standing male chorus completely conceals Quixote as he sings downstage center); Aldonza's rape (played far upstage, obstructed by a stack of props); and the death of Quijana (the actors flanking the character's makeshift bed obscure him entirely). It is disgraceful that a director would leave more than half of his audience with little or no view of the action unfolding mere feet away from them.

Although I frequently couldn't see what was happening, I could hear everything—and often that was worse. Jesse Malgieri's Cervantes/Quixote will not erase any memories of Richard Kiley or Brian Stokes Mitchell. His singing is consistently flat, and he often runs out of juice before the end of a song. As Aldonza/Dulcinea, Sandra Marante flaunts an appealing lower register, but her soprano turns wiry and wobbly the higher she sings. Jordan Bunshaft offers a standard-issue Sancho: all rubber-faced overstatement and unpleasant caterwauling. The best voice in the cast belongs to Kyle Guglielmo, who is wasted in the small role of Dr. Carrasco; despite having only three or four sung lines, he manages to distinguish himself.

The assembled orchestra, under Louis F. Goldberg's supervision, plays oddly throughout. They often seem out of rhythm with the performers—especially Marante, who shamelessly back phrases. The subtle humor of "I'm Only Thinking of Him" is lost entirely, as the song becomes a high-speed endurance test. At other times, the familiar material seems unrecognizable; the lovely "To Each His Dulcinea," for example, more closely resembles a free-associative bebop than a lilting musical theater ballad.

This La Mancha may be presented on a university campus, but it is a professional production charging up to $65 per ticket. For those prices, I expect more than the old college try.

The Princeton Festival's production of Man of La Mancha continues through Sunday, June 25, 2017, at the Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton NJ. All remaining performances are currently sold out. Those wishing to inquire about cancellations can call 609-258-2787. For more information on the festival, visit princetonfestival.org.


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