Arts & Theater

'Man of La Mancha' is a soul-stirring musical about hope and honor

From left to right: Nicole Sterling, Chris Vettel and Jake Mahler in "Man of La Mancha."
From left to right: Nicole Sterling, Chris Vettel and Jake Mahler in "Man of La Mancha."

Long before people like Norman Vincent Peale, Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra were preaching the power of positive thinking, there was Don Quixote.

The chivalrous “mad knight" first appeared in a novel by author Miguel de Cervantes in the early 1600s. More than 300 years later, a talented team of writers turned “Don Quixote” into “Man of La Mancha,” a successful, Tony Award-winning musical.

And now, more than 50 years after “La Mancha” opened on Broadway, Sacramento Theatre Company has delivered a stirringly beautiful production of the play, buttressed by an ensemble of actors with strong singing voices who demonstrate that the themes of love, honor and hope are timeless and compelling.

"La Mancha" opens in a dungeon during the Spanish Inquisition of the late 1400s, when the Catholic monarchy sought to investigate, capture, imprison, expel — and sometimes even execute — Jews, Muslims, Protestants and other nonbelievers.

Cervantes and his squire, Sancho Panza, are the newest arrivals at the dungeon, where prisoners await their disposition. But first, the other inmates subject the newcomers to a trial of their own. Cervantes’ crimes? His fellow prisoners accuse him of being an idealist, a bad poet and an honest man. He immediately pleads guilty, but asks that he be allowed to make his case before he is sentenced — at the risk of forfeiting all of his and Sancho’s personal possessions.

Cervantes’ defense comes in the form of a play within a play, as he transforms himself into the clearly unbalanced but passionate Don Quixote, the man of La Mancha. He and Sancho throw open his trunk to reveal costumes and props for all the other prisoners, who agree to follow Quixote’s direction as they journey through his fantasy world of knights, ladies and villains, a place where good can and should always triumph over evil.

Chris Vettel is mesmerizing as the delusional, deadpan Don Quixote. He delivers his lines with Shakespearean elegance and an uncanny, 1,000-yard stare, eyes widening and glowing with each new imaginary challenge or triumph. His operatic voice never disappoints, especially during audience-wowing renditions of “Man of La Mancha” and “The Impossible Dream," the play's signature song, which has been recorded by artists including Elvis Presley, the Smothers Brothers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (“To right the unrightable wrong ... to reach the unreachable star.”)

Jake Mahler, as Sancho Panza, is the ideal yin to Quixote’s yang, the wisecracking sidekick who takes nothing — especially Quixote — too seriously. When asked why he sticks by Quixote's side, he answers passionately in song: “I like him! I really like him. ... I don't have a very good reason. Since I've been with him cuckoo-nuts have been in season!”

Rounding out the trio of lead characters is Nicole Sterling, whose expressive voice conveys her suffering and eventual redemption as she transforms on stage from the real-world abused barmaid Aldonza to the soulful Lady Dulcinea, the focus of Don Quixote's unwavering affection in his ongoing fantasy.

Credit Eric Broadwater's set and Jessica Bertine's lighting for creating what can fairly be described as an attractive, inviting dungeon, one that also easily transforms into Quixote’s sets when need be. A crisp, five-piece orchestra cleverly is placed behind a see-through scrim at the back of the set.

In assembling his actors, director/choreographer Michael Jenkinson did well to find 14 true triple-threat performers who can all act, sing and dance — not just adequately but quite impressively — as they alternate between the real-world dungeon and Quixote’s fantasy settings.

Among the standouts: Abbey Campbell (Antonia/Fermina/ensemble); the guitar-playing Sam C. Jones (Pedro/ensemble); Gabe Friedman (padre/Juan/ensemble); Lucas Blair (Anselmo/barber/ensemble); and Matt K. Miller (the governor/innkeeper).

However, despite the purposeful staging, there are occasions when it becomes difficult to discern the realm in which action is taking place; the toggling between fantasy and reality can be rapid and confusing.

In the fantasy world, characters are quick to question Quixote’s sanity: “There is either the wisest madman or the maddest wise man in the world,” the padre says toward the end of the first act.

But Quixote, true to his heart — and to the thread of hopefulness that runs through “La Mancha” — offers philosophical words in his defense: “Madness is to see life as it is, and not as it ought to be.”

Mitchel Benson is The Bee’s theater critic and a freelance writer. Contact him at mdbenson007@gmail.com.

'Man of La Mancha'

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What: The Tony Award-winning musical is the tale of a knight in delusional armor who believes in a world of honor, hope and justice. Book by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. Directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson.

Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Main Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through May 13.

Cost: $15-$38, discounts available for students, seniors and military.

Information: 916-443-6722 or tickets.sactheatre.org

Running time: About 2 hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission

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