by Otto Coelho
I was astounded to discover that the Spanish Inquisition lasted over 350 years. Its original intent was to root out heresy – what it actually did was consolidate power in the new monarchy of Spain. But then, what do I know? Most of my knowledge of The Inquisition came from a musical number from Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part One” and a Monty Python sketch. A legacy of using brutality to consolidate power has been used for many centuries and in many countries, including the United States.
The Inquisition is at the heart of “Man of La Mancha,”but the San Jose Playhouse’s production expands the scope of the musical by using a more timeless setting. In fact, during the welcoming announcement at the beginning, we’re told specifically where and when the production is set. I found it unnecessary. They might trust their audience a bit more and perhaps add a director’s note in the program if they feel the need to justify it. However, if you’re expecting the usual 17th century costumes and sets, you may be disappointed at first. However, if you can let go of your preconceived notions, it’s easy to see the point that is being made, and it makes the show no less enjoyable.
Typically this Mitch Leigh/Joe Darion musical is played with a large cast, but this 12 person ensemble does quite well, especially in the intimate space of 3Below Theatres. Stephen Guggenheim as Cervantes/Don Quixote possesses a powerful voice and a strong presence, but seemed disconnected from the passion that his songs should convey. As Aldonza/Dulcinea, Sandra Raquel Bengochea commands the stage in every scene she’s in. Bengochea has the fiery strength required of Aldonza, and pairs it with a lovely vulnerability when admitting that her life as Quixote’s Dulcinea was much more preferable to her own. Jeff LaGreca is wonderfully hilarious as Sancho, and Isai Ceteno and Brian Conway possess expressive physicality as The Horse and The Mule. Emily Song is a standout as Antonia/Fermina with her gracefulness and lovely voice. Jim Ambler as Padre/Anselmo and F. James Raasch as Dr. Carrasco/Duke/Pedro are excellent in both voice and presence, and their harmonies are top notch. Indeed, they, along with Jeff LaGreca are the male strength of this production.
Director Scott Evan Guggenheim uses the small space effectively, but I would caution some members of the cast that they cannot let character drop just because they are not the focus of the scene. The space is far too intimate to hide taking a break while onstage. Also, this production is badly in need of a fight choreographer. From slapping Aldonza in the face to the “sword battle” scenes, it’s just all rather unconvincing, even taking consideration that these occur in the play within the play. Jon Gourdine’s lighting is effective, and Julie Englebrecht’s sets make great use of the limited stage space. Englebrecht’s costumes are nice but I did not understand why, given the play’s setting, Cervantes had Don Quixote’s doublet on underneath his more modern wool overcoat. It might have been a better, more logical choice for his doublet to be put on as part of the play costumes in his luggage.
All in all, San Jose Playhouse’s production pleases with some strong performances and an interesting concept. While it does not fire consistently on all cylinders, it does get you there.
Man of La Mancha continues at 3Below Theatres through June 26th. For further information click here.
Rating: *** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.
“Man of La Mancha” Book by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. Produced by San Jose Playhouse. Director: Scott Evan Guggenheim. Set and Costume Designer: Julie Englebrecht. Lighting Designer/Master Electrician: Jon Gourdine. Sound Designer: Casey Coleman. Choreographer: Kristin Kusanovich
Miguel de Cervantes/DonQuixote/Alonso Quijana: Stephen Guggenheim. Sancho Panza: Jeff LaGreca. Aldonza/Dulcinea: Sandra Bengochea. Dr. Carrasco/Duke/Pedro: F. James Raasch. Innkeeper/Governor: Jackson Davis. Antonia/Femina: Emily Song. Padre/Anselmo: Jim Ambler. Housekeeper/Guard: Katya Roemer. Captain of the Inquisition/Paco: Scott Jackson. Tenorio/The Mule: Brian Conway. Jose/The Horse: Isai Centeno: Cantaor/Maria/Barber: Gloria Garcia Stanley.