"Man of La Mancha" is bursting with energy, emotion

Actors rehearse for the theatre performance of Man of La Mancha at the main stage at Santa Monica College on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Diana Parra)

Last weekend, the SMC Theater Department launched their final production of the spring, "Man of La Mancha." Winner of five Tony awards, "Man of La Mancha" is a play-within-a-play, based on a book by Dale Wasserman, which tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes and his alter ego Don Quixote. It's an out of the ordinary musical which is not so easy to tackle. But it was a delight to see SMC take on this production, with direction and choreography by Theater Arts Department Chair Perviz Sawoski, and music direction by Gary Gray.

There was a long line as everyone anxiously waited to get inside and see the preview performance on May 19.

When the nearly capacity crowd awaited the start of the show, the elaborate set design immediately inspired conversation throughout the audience. The décor lent authenticity and versatility to the show with wooden barrels, staircases, and seats that would serve as a prison cell, a hotel, and any other locations our protagonist could dream up.

Actors rehearse for the theatre performance of Man of La Mancha at the main stage at Santa Monica College on Wednesday, May 18, 2016.
Actors rehearse for the theatre performance of Man of La Mancha at the main stage at Santa Monica College on Wednesday, May 18, 2016.

We were welcomed into the play's late 16th century Spain setting with a musical overture from the live orchestra, conducted by Gray.

The story begins with De Cervantes, played by James Scognamillo, along with his servant Sancho Panza, played by Jesse Tobar, being thrown in a dungeon by the Spanish Inquisition. In the face of threats from the other prisoners, Cervantes comes up with a plan to challenge quasi-leader of the prison gang, "The Governor," played by Levi Booker, and present his case for innocence in the form of a play.

Cervantes transforms himself into Alonso Quijana, a madman, windmill battler, and “knight-errant,” who sees himself as Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight on a conquest “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not to go,” as he says in one of the play's most popular songs, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)."

Levi Booker (left), in the role of Governor, and James Scognamillo (right), in the role of Don Quixote, rehearse for the upcoming theater performance of Man of La Mancha at the Santa Monica College Main Stage on May 18, 2016.
Levi Booker (left), in the role of Governor, and James Scognamillo (right), in the role of Don Quixote, rehearse for the upcoming theater performance of Man of La Mancha at the Santa Monica College Main Stage on May 18, 2016.

Scognamillo did it all as the main character, naturally switching back and forth from prisoner, to mad man, to a conquistador pursuing “The Impossible Dream,” showing that becoming a knight is not as easy as it seems.

This wasn't Scognamillo's first time carrying a major role at SMC as he was one of the three leads in the first production of the semester, "Once In a Lifetime." After his strong performance here, he may have more lead roles in his future.

Tobar's energetic performance allowed Sancho to stand out from the crowd, even in his role as a mere servant. He was quite an amusing character, and not just because of his loud and rambunctious pants.

Sawoski managed well with a team of this size, drawing focused and strong performances out of a large ensemble. One particularly notable performance came from Mariah Casillas who plays Aldonza, a town prostitute turned Don Quixote's fair lady. Serving as the emotional core of the show, Casillas showed enough talent to swallow the show herself. She is wonderfully wicked, can sing, and articulates every word and movement.

Mariah Casillas, in the role of Aldonza, rehearses for the upcoming theater performance of Man of La Mancha on the Santa Monica College Main Stage on May 18, 2016.
Mariah Casillas, in the role of Aldonza, rehearses for the upcoming theater performance of Man of La Mancha on the Santa Monica College Main Stage on May 18, 2016.

One thing that didn’t work for this play was the lack of Spanish accents. There were a few characters that used accents, but other than that it felt like a second language to them and didn’t come across as natural.

Nonetheless, the show was entertaining and quite comical. Everyone played an important role no matter how small, feeding off of each other’s insanity from being prisoners. It may be confusing if an audience member wasn’t fully attentive, but the actors did a wonderful job of commanding the audience’s focus.

The costumes were well done, considering the 16th century prison setting required them to make drab look fab, and the "play-within-a-play" nature meant quick costume changes.

There were some scenes that I felt could have gone further in terms of the acting, daring to be even uglier and louder. During the fight scenes, I wasn’t as far on the edge of my seat as I would’ve liked. There were some mishaps with the sound, but they didn’t let that hinder the performance. I always like to see actors play off of what has gone wrong and turn it into something funny.

Seeing it from afar, you could tell the entire cast and crew enjoyed contributing their talents and efforts to this play. It was festive and enjoyable — a play for every audience to enjoy. "Man of La Mancha" is perhaps one of the most complex musicals I’ve seen, and I enjoyed every minute of it.