'La Mancha' at Princeton Festival: Great songs, voices, message

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Sandra Marante (left) as Aldonza/Dulcinea and Jesse Malgieri as Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana in “Man of La Mancha” at the Princeton Festival.

After Saturday’s opening night of Man of La Mancha at the Princeton Festival, artistic director Richard Tang Yuk stood in a crowded hallway and introduced the cast. “Looking at the rest of the run,” he said, “I think there’s about five or six seats left, so if any of your friends want to see it, they had better call soon.”

If you can get any of those last six seats, do. The festival’s Man of La Mancha, in the black box of the Matthews Acting Studio at the Lewis Center for the Arts, is a summer gem. Summer festival sometimes implies light, but what this production sacrifices in glamour it makes up for in fidelity to the profound core of this show. Michael Dean Morgan’s disciplined direction gives us a La Mancha not so much boiled down as essential. The worst thing about it was the air-conditioning, which bravely went up against a June heat wave and capitulated, leaving the audience well and truly in the Spanish desert. Hey, call it verisimilitude.

This La Mancha is workshoppy, thrown together in three weeks. The cast scurries around the stage between sets, slinging crates, tables, stools, poles, and vestigial props to create a prison, an inn, stables. But these folks have acting skills and light-opera singing chops, backed by an able band.

The musical rests on the shoulders of Jesse Malgieri as Cervantes/Don Quixote, Sandra Marante as Aldonza, and Jordan Bunshaft as Sancho Panza. All three are really good. Malgieri and Marante startled with their first notes, their voices transcending the space. Malgieri renders Quixote as visionary, confident, focused. Wrapped in his wide-eyed dream, he doesn’t hear or see other people so much as his illusion of them. Aldonza is left almost screaming at him to “see me as I am.” This is this musical’s existential center: We seldom get past personal illusions, connection is rare, meaning elusive.

Thus, the great songs – “The Impossible Dream,” “Dulcinea,” “What Does He Want of Me?” – are double-sided, celebrating the individual’s quest and acknowledging the frequent failure and confusion that result (Aldonza tells Quixote he is “cruelest of all”).

With a bitter glint in her eye, Marante persuades us of her cynical acceptance of a degrading life – and of what she learns from Quixote. She doesn’t convert to his vision, exactly; she accepts its heroism, the meaning of an absurd quest in an absurd universe.

Malgieri’s Quixote is both fool and hero, madman and sage. When he utters the line, “Facts are the enemy of truth,” a politicized murmur rippled through the crowd – but, then, that paradox characterized 1965 (when the play had its debut) as much as it does 2017. But he turns out to be right (as the character Don Carrasco would never acknowledge): Confine yourself to facts alone, and you will miss life itself.

Sancho often is played as bruised, battered, and long-suffering, but Bunshaft plays him as happy-go-lucky with a touch of Wallace Shawn. His charming rendering of “I Really Like Him” doesn’t try to explain why. He just does. This Sancho’s coping strategy is to laugh at himself before all.

I like the idea of an intimate Man of La Mancha. Better than more elaborate renditions, the Princeton Festival Man of La Mancha gets to the tragic, comic heart of it all.

Man of La Mancha. June 15-18 and June 22-25 at the Princeton Festival, Lewis Center for the Arts, Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau St., Princeton, N.J. Tickets: $40-$65. Information: 609-759-0379, princetonfestival.org.

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