LOGAN — Come along on an epic journey with Don Quixote at the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre as he fights giants, visits castles, and courts a beautiful lady. Presented in the exquisite Ellen Eccles Theatre on Main Street in Logan, director George Pinney has created an extraordinary production of Man of La Mancha starring local favorite Michael Ballam.
Man of La Mancha, with a script by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, and lyrics by Joe Darion, is an award-winning musical that is based on the 1605 novel Don Quixote written by Miguel de Cervantes. The musical tells the story of a man, Cervantes, and his servant who are imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition. In an attempt to keep his possessions from being divided among the other prisoners, Cervantes tells a story and puts on a play in the prison. Cervantes performs as Alonso Quijana, a man who has “gone mad” and becomes Don Quixote, a knight on a quest to right wrongs and fight impossible foes.
Pinney’s vision for this show started as he asked the cast to imagine that they were in a dungeon below a chemical plant in a wartorn area, like Ukraine, Afghanistan, or maybe even dangerous parts of the United States. The non-specific location sends the message that everybody is facing a difficult and hopeless world with their own quests. Man of La Mancha inspires viewers to reach for the “Impossible Dream” and to create a life of beauty and honor even in the worst of circumstances. This production of Man of La Mancha is one of the best shows of the summer.
Ballam expertly reprised the lead role of Cervantes. Ballam’s transformation into Don Quixote on stage was fabulous as he slyly put on fake eyebrows and facial hair, fluffed his white hair on top of his head and turned to the audience with a bizarre look of excitement. Ballam is a dynamic performer as he sings tenderly in “Dulcinea” and triumphantly in the “Barber’s Song/ Golden Helmet.” Throughout the evening, he wears crazed and bewildered looks to portray Don Quixote the dreamer. Yet most touching of all was his performance of “The Impossible Dream” as he portrayed not a crazy man, but a man full of hopes and dreams who brings out the best in others.
Stefan Espinosa played Cervantes’s manservant, who in turn portrays Sancho Panza, the faithful sidekick of Don Quixote. Espinosa’s comedic timing was flawlessly delivered as he proclaimed that he could not read and sang “I Really Like Him.” Espinosa’s facial expressions and lovable personality made him one of my favorite characters from the night.
Audrey Babcock played the whore Aldonza, whom Don Quixote sees as the beautiful Lady Dulcinea. Babcok’s fierce attitude and demanding acting combined with her bewitching operatic voice make her a strong force to be reckoned with. Her desperation is sadly too relatable as she says, “See me as I really am… I am no one, I am nothing.”
The Utah Festival Opera production of Man of La Mancha comes complete with a live orchestra directed by Karen Keltner. The show started with an overture compiled of songs from the show that are based on traditional Spanish music (complete with castanets!), preparing the audience for a heroic journey through the Spanish countryside.
Traditional dance numbers choreographed by director Pinney, were lively and enjoyable. The horse and the mule played by Ben Jessop and Robert Frederick Taylor had great galloping dance steps and actions that made them feel like very believable animals. The horse and mule masks were large and impressive; costume designer Jess Wallace paid close attention to details, creating costumes that were fitting of the Spanish Inquisition time period and that all harmonized well together. The costume for the Knight of the Mirrors was especially notable with a full knight costume, large mirror shields, and shinny spikes off the shoulders.
The enormous set (designed by Timothy Case) had four massive towers, tunnels, large bars and a long drawbridge. Being trapped in a prison with no way of escape was very believable on this set. Sound designer Bryan Z. Richards designed a loud grating sound of the drawbridge being moved that would be terrifying if heard in a real prison. Lighting designed by Chris Wood was effective in creating the locations from the Don Quixote story in the massive prison set. Giant windmill shadow projections on the floor transformed the prison into the countryside and made Don Quixote’s famous fight with windmills very lifelike.
As each person fights their own quests and are sometimes tilting at windmills, the Man of La Mancha at the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre is fantastic and definitely worth a drive to Logan. It reminds its audience that “Too much sanity may be madness – and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!” (Also, as a special treat, make sure to visit the courtyard during intermission to enjoy some delicious treats including some Aggie Ice Cream.)