The "Man From La Mancha" Imagines the World as It Should Be

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Man of La Mancha
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
Drew University
Madison, N.J.

Don Quixote rides again!

The immortal knight-errant of the sixteenth century, created by writer Miguel de Cervantes between several prison sentences during the Spanish Inquisition, is back on stage in a new version of the Man of La Mancha, which opened last Saturday at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey.

Man of La Mancha is set in the late sixteenth century in a large common cell of a Spanish prison during Inquisition. Miguel de Cervantes and his squire, Sancho, arrive amid a crowd of cutthroat murderers, robbers and political prisoners in the large, dark, sparse, foreboding cell. Cervantes is put on trial in a kangaroo court by the prisoners, and to prove his innocence he stages a play-within-the-play version of Don Quixote. In the little cell drama, the character alternately looks like a saint and a fool, but it doesn't matter to him because he sees the best in everybody, especially a tavern whore named Aldonza, whom he calls Dulcinea and serenades with a heartbreakingly beautiful song.

Quioxte is out, in his quixotic way to correct the mistakes of the world and change the hearts of men and women. At the end of his flowery explanation of the quest, he grabs his lance and sings the legendary song, "The Impossible Dream." (The audience cheered madly at the end of it.)

Don Quixote rides on in his little reality and, in the end, does create a new world, even if it is in our dreams and not our lives. It is a lovely world, too -- a world as it should be.

The centerpiece of this play is the wonderfully gifted William Michals, a strapping actor who plays Don Quixote. Michals has a gorgeous voice and stuns the audience every time he launches into a song, whether the foot-stomping theme song or the slow, gorgeous "Dulcinea." He has pizzazz, too, and is a sturdy and trustworthy Don Quixote. His sidekick, the playful Sancho, is portrayed well by Blake Pfeil, who has a sharp sense of humor.

Director Bonnie Monte has worked a miracle in staging this play. In her hands, every scene comes to life. giving the play an upbeat tempo while not shying away from the hellish reality of a dark, dank prison.

Cervantes wrote the novel Don Quixote towards the end of his life, and it has lived on throughout history as a fiction favorite (it was Dolley Madison’s favorite novel). The book was turned into the musical Man of La Mancha in 1965 by Dale Wasserman, who wrote the book, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. It won a number of Tony Awards and was staged all over the world in the next decade. "The Impossible Dream" has remained a favorite tune.

Man of La Mancha is a nice look at history. Cervantes’s story alone is a chapter of Spanish history. The writer, born in 1547, was a marine who served at the Battle of Lepanto, and was subsequently captured by Algerian pirates and spent five years in Algiers as a slave. After being ransomed by his family, he returned to Spain, but then fell afoul of the monarchy. He was thrown into prison by the Inquisition four times and excommunicated from the church -- but he never lost his dreams, or his pen, and wrote forty plays in twenty years.

And so, Don Quixote still lives, charging at windmills, complimenting women and dreaming the impossible dream. In hard times like these, he is a welcome friend to all.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Musical director: Doug Oberhamer; Sets: Michael Schweikardt; Costumes: Michelle Eden Humphrey; Lighting: Michael Giannitti; Fight director: Rick Sordelet; Sound: Steven Beckel.

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