Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Man of La Mancha
At the door leading to this compound stands a sour-looking guard in dark glasses and a red cap (one can almost imagine seeing "MAGA" on it). One by one, scared souls clearly of varying nationalities slink along the theater's aisles and guardrails, only to be grabbed at the gate by the guard, roughed up, and pushed inside. Soon, the cast for the evening's musical are all on stage, facing us with frightened faces, hands up against an invisible fourth-wall fence separating us and them.
All, that is, except for the final two, who now arrive with large trunks. One wears a long, ragged coat with a yellow Star of David on it, reminiscent of the Holocaust. We soon learn they are two actors forced that evening off the stage and imprisoned here among what appear to be present-day, undocumented immigrants. As other prisoners begin pilfering their trunks to grab warm things to wear, we learn the two are playwright, actor, and tax collector Cervantes and his manservant. Both have been brought here as part of an ongoing church-state-led inquisition–his crime being to foreclose a monastery for not paying its taxes. (Here is where the present day holding cell for immigrants and the late 16th-century Cervantes caught up as a victim of the Spanish Inquisition leaves one scratching their head a bit in reconciling how both can be happening at the same time.)
When Cervantes' fellow prisoners charge him as "an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man" and threaten to put him on trial, Cervantes asks to speak in his own defense and to do so as a "charade." Receiving permission from a sympathetic prisoner others call The Governor, Cervantes begins a transformation into a wandering knight-errant, adding bushy eyebrows, scruffy beard, and other hilarious but effective costume pieces (also designed by Julie Engelbrecht) befitting a traveling actor doing his best with makeshift items from the trunk.
And thus begins a play within a play as the prisoners join now as actors in this charade trial. Cervantes directs them as they enact a tale about an old man named Alonso Quijano and his country squire–an elder who through all his reading so many books about man's injustices to others, has convinced himself that he must become a "knight errant and go into the world to right all wrong." In doing so he renames himself yet again as Don Quixote of La Mancha.
The perennial lead actor of most San Jose Playhouse musicals, Stephen Guggenheim, once again brings to the stage his rich, operatic-trained voice as he introduces himself and his mission in "I, Don Quixote." Sitting atop an imaginary carriage next to his squire, two prisoners in horse and mule masks and hands gloved as hoofs (Isai Centeno and Brian Conway) pull their passengers along as they prance and dance with high and jolly steps, with the knight making his way into his make-believe world of adventure.
His first encounter is against what he sees as a monster, no matter how many times his faithful squire Sancho tries to convince him it is a windmill. As prisoners now fully get into the act, tying the foil blankets onto sticks and twirling them furiously around the sword-flailing knight, they become a windmill that is to him an ogre. As he declares victory waving his now twisted sword, we and the prisoners themselves quickly become endeared to this old man and his undaunted optimism, fool-hearty bravery, and incredible naiveté.
Every Don Quixote is only as successful as his loyal sidekick Sancho Panza, and Jeff LaGreca has the looks (short, wiry, big-eyed, a face that metamorphoses into a thousand grins and grimaces), the demeanor (respectfully blind to and denying of his master's insanity even as he rolls his eyes), and the movements (something between a goofy clown and an overly confident alley cat) to pull off a fun, funny, and totally lovable Sancho. Out of the blue he blurts out statements like "They say one madman makes a hundred and love makes a thousand," only to brush off "What does that mean?" with a smiling "I don't know." When he delivers songs such as "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip," he sings with a boyish voice searching vigorously for notes with an occasional scratchiness that matches so completely his scruffy personality.
Don Quixote's illusions continue and only amplify as the two arrive at a wretched roadside inn now full of prisoners turned into rough and crude muleteers. The two travelers are welcomed by a gentle-souled innkeeper (Jackson Davis) who reluctantly but then willingly complies with the notion that his humble inn is now a noble castle and he is its ruling lord.
Quixote's niece Antonia (Emily Song) arrives at the inn with her uncle's elderly Housekeeper (Katya Roemer), trying to solicit the help of a local Padre (Jim Ambler) to convince the illusion-filled Cervantes to come home. In one of several scenes where Scott Guggenheim flouts his prowess as director, the three sing in a quickly assembled church (complete with Sancho serving as Christ on the cross and other prisoners as saints' busts on the imaginary walls) a wonderfully voiced "I'm Only Thinking of Him" in which each singer enhances a character's personality with vocal precision.
In this same run-down inn that Quixote has dubbed a royal abode, he eyes across the room a brassy barmaid and part-time prostitute named Aldonza whom he immediately identifies as his long-sought lady, Dulcinea. With notes that slide lusciously into their position and willing to linger long enough to impress, Stephen Guggenheim woos us as audience with his version of the much-loved "Dulcinea" but does little but flabbergast and annoy the fiery Aldonza, who wants nothing to do with this crazy old man.
Sandra Raquel Bengochea excels as a flirty, hip-swishing Aldonza who also continually fights off with fierce resistance the pawing hands of the muleteers she serves. She has a bitter outlook given the bleak life she lives, cynically snarling at one point to Quixote, "The world's a dung heap, and we are maggots that crawl on it." She snarls and snaps at the mocking of the muleteers when they sing in sweet, child-like harmony "Little Bird, Little Bird" while harassing her to no end. But when they later surround and attack her in a grueling scene of stomps, claps, and air punches, her bitterness multiplies only to be softened again when that same group takes on Quixote as a gang of masked, theatrically smiling, and frowning attackers. She then gradually peels away her layers of disbelief and resistance to this kind but foolish knight's adoration and his sense of unrelenting hope where there should be none.
As excellent as Sandra Bengochea's acting is, her operatically trained voice often misses in conveying the character she is portraying when not singing. When she sings "What Does He Want of Me?" or "Aldonza," her over-voiced soprano with its stage formal tones unfortunately does not match the hardened, contemptuous wench she otherwise so masterfully portrays.
That mismatch of sung interpretation occurs at times for our Quixote, too. That is especially true when he ends Act One with the musical's most iconic number, "The Impossible Dream." At a moment when the musical has the potential to bring us a timely and relevant message to retain optimism and hope in a world where misinformation news and tweets reign supreme, where despots move to take over other countries, and where politicians honor the right to own guns more than the lives of innocent children, the delivery of the song becomes more about the singer and his voice than the message itself. Notes tremble; one phrase tries to outdo the last one sung; and, overall, a normally excellent singer/performer seems to be trying too hard to compete with the scores of famous folk who have sung and recorded this enduring favorite of the Great American Songbook.
But fortunately, any over-singing disappears as the story reaches its climax. Sandra Bengochea significantly tones down her vocals as Aldonza performs a beautiful and moving reprisal of "Dulcinea" over an injured Quixote, followed by a convincing "The Impossible Dream" she sings in duet with the now-revived knight. The evening's best number musically and emotionally is appropriately the finale's "The Impossible Dream" as Aldonza leads the entire group of prisoners in serenading Cervantes and his manservant while they head to what is a certain execution:
"And the world will be better for this,
Man of La Mancha runs through June 26, 2022, in performance by San Jose Playhouse at 3 Below Theatres, 288 South 2nd Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit sanjoseplayhouse.org.