One of the highlights of the Central Coast summer theater season is seeing a play under the stars at the Solvang Festival Theater. The amphitheater, which is only operational through the summer, features a lineup of plays produced by the nearby theater conservatory, PCPA. This July, PCPA presents Man of La Mancha, the classic musical about the man who tilted at windmills — and the author who invented him. Dale Wasserman’s musical isn’t a direct adaptation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote; nor is it designed to accurately represent the facts of the author’s life. Instead, Man of La Mancha reframes the experiences of Quixote and Cervantes into a different type of story — while still aiming to capture the idealistic spirit of adventure, justice, and romance so prevalent in the early-17th-century text.
Man of La Mancha has been a popular musical since its premiere 50 years ago. It won five Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, during its original run on Broadway. As the title suggests, the man of La Mancha is indeed the aging, mentally infirm knight Don Quixote de La Mancha, who takes to horse with his servant, Sancho, to travel the countryside in search of chivalrous adventure. Yet Wasserman’s script focuses instead on the story of Quixote’s author. Miguel de Cervantes, a tax collector charged with foreclosing on a monastery, awaits trial during the Spanish Inquisition. While he waits, the other inmates decide to take up his case in an impromptu prison hearing, with the stipulation that when Cervantes is found guilty, his possessions will be forfeit and divided among the other prisoners. He agrees, but in an attempt to save his only possession of value, a manuscript (the unfinished Don Quixote), Cervantes asks to present his defense in the form of a play. So begins the play within the play, in which Cervantes becomes Quixote and re-creates his story for the “court.”
Quixote travels the countryside, besting enemies that only exist in his befuddled mind. While these visions may be specters of madness, Quixote’s experiences with them are real. By seeing the world as he does, said director and PCPA alumnus Mark Herrier, the audience can appreciate the significance of “finding hope amid cynicism, finding courage against overwhelming odds, and being able to see the real beauty within, rather than the façade.” Man of La Mancha is a play that presents magnificent transformation: a prisoner with little hope for exoneration becomes a crazy, splendid knight of his own invention and seeks adventure beyond the dungeons. Man of La Mancha is a layered production in which Quixote, Cervantes, and Wasserman all aspire to show audiences the importance of seeing life as it should be, rather than accepting it for what it is.
In this production, Herrier strives for an enjoyable balance of humor and drama — a range that matches the assortment of musical styles in the show, from ballads of love to anthems of triumph.
PCPA’s Man of La Mancha runs July 17-August 16 at the Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang. For tickets, call (805) 922-8313 or see pcpa.org.