High Notes

'La Mancha' is everything a musical should be

The notion that musicals are the opposite of serious drama, happily optimistic fluff designed to allow audiences to escape the world, is obvious nonsense to anyone whose been thoroughly shattered by a truly great musical.

That a musical uses the power of song to dissect the world’s problems makes the effort no less serious than were those issues examined through prose alone. Like a sculptor’s chisel, sometimes a well-crafted song is the perfect tool to cut right to heart of the matter.

In Man of La Mancha, now playing at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, these ideas are examined, in a way, through the story of Miguel de Cervantes (the excellent baritone Daniel Cilli). Imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, the poet and playwright attempts to cut through the hopelessness of his fellow prisoners by telling the story of Alonso Quixano, a Spanish nobleman who has read too many books about knights in shining armor, loses his sanity, names himself Sir Don Quixote and set off to revive the age of Chivalry.

As written by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh in 1964, Man of La Mancha offers no simple answers, and this production—sensitively directed by Elly Lichenstein, with superb musical direction by Mary Chun—is anything but fluff.

Cilli is wonderful. His Cervantes carries a wounded humanity and palpable fear, and imbues Quixote with a kind of goofy, amiable, wide-eyed earnestness. As Aldonza, the bitter prostitute whom Quixote names Dulcinea—believing her to be a symbol of purity and beauty—Daniela Innocenti-Beem is astonishing, her interpretation of Aldonza’s desperation is as raw and real as her singing is sweet and often soaring.

The remarkably good supporting cast is full of strong voices and striking performances. These include Michael van Why as Quixote’s faithful squire Sancho Panza, Anthony Martinez as the skeptical prisoner known as the Duke, Mary Gannon Graham as Quixano’s housekeeper, Kim Anderson as Quixano’s niece Antonia and Stephen Walsh as the inmate known as the Governor, who puts Cervantes—and his Don Quixote manuscript—on trial.

With strong support from lighting, set design, costume and makeup, this lovely, passionately acted, emotionally searing La Mancha is at times heartbreaking, shattering and even horrifying, while simultaneously remaining hopeful, engaging and healing.

It’s everything a musical can and should be.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½