SMuTCo’s Impossible Dream

Sumner Ellsworth

The Man of la Mancha was an ambitious undertaking for Student Musical Theater (SMuTCo). A large, well-known and popular musical, the production had great expectations to meet, but challenges in the way of an inexperienced director, uncertain talent, and no one to build the extensive set. It seemed that The Man of la Mancha might be an impossible dream for SMuTCo. The name itself drew in a large audience though, and many were excited to see what SMuTCo would make of it.

Compared to the expectation, the performance was something akin to the realization that the Knight of Mirrors forces on The Man of la Mancha, that he is not Don Quixote, but merely Alonso Quixano. Not a stunning, moving experience, this musical was instead an entertaining yet flawed recital.

The production did have an impressive cast. Singers willing to participate in productions presented by Colgate’s theater community can often be hard to find, particularly with the commitment required by a capella groups that attract talented singers. To circumvent this, the production drew heavily on the incoming talent of the first-years.

Young actors or singers can sometimes be a problem for a production, lacking experience, but this wasn’t the case with The Man of la Mancha. First-year Alex Sklyar was an endearing mix of a romantically and foolishly idealistic Don Quixote and a forlorn and world-weary Cervantes. While Aldonza/Dulcinea, portrayed by first-year Lindsey Simpson, had a surprisingly powerful and sweet voice. And the supporting cast was not to be eclipsed by the talent of the main characters. First-year Emily Rawdon, who played Don Quixote’s housekeeper, had a powerful voice that seemed to come out of nowhere, and Steve Naidu was quite the character.

Sadly, there wasn’t much backing up the singers. The characters in The Man of la Mancha should have been dynamic, full of life and energy, many of them undergo vast changes to their fundamental characters. Yet they seemed to lack the force of life, the spark that would make them believable as not just characters in a play, but real people we can relate to ourselves. They didn’t seem to grow or change throughout the course of the story.

The non-existent choreography and blocking were also of little help. The actors stood in straight lines for most of the show, not utilizing the depth of the stage. Every time that Don Quixote sang a song, it was in exactly the same place, in exactly the same way: heroically, standing at the edge of the stage, and gesturing wildly at the audience with his sword.

Only one of the chorus members truly attacked the show with any enthusiasm, which, while refreshing to see next to the dour and unenthused faces of some of his fellow cast members, made him stand out. Everyone should have been at the same level, whether that meant suppressing one, or inflating the others, the director should have stepped in and fixed the problem.

Technically speaking, the costumes were probably the best aspect. Most of the base costumes were quite attractive and convincing, but the extra pieces, things added as something extra for this scene or that, were lacking. Don Quixote’s armor was clearly the fake white of a cheap plastic Halloween costume on the inside, and the Innkeeper’s “nightgown” looked more like an almost see-through hospital gown – open back and all – than something any sane person would wear to bed. Most egregiously, the “Golden Helmet of Mambrino” didn’t fit. There is something to be said about creative inspiration, and the fact that the helmet in question was actually a shaving basin. It didn’t have to fit well, probably shouldn’t have, but it also shouldn’t have been falling off every other step Skylar took either. Once might have been funny, but more than twice was annoying and distracted from the plot.

As for the set, it looked like it had barely been finished on time, which is what happens when you only have one person building it. The Technical Director did the best that he could, but there’s only so much that one man can do, particularly when he has classes to attend to as well. As a result, there seemed to be a lack of detail to the set, where things didn’t get any more than a base coat, or not all of the carving was completed.

And what was there was poorly placed. The stage itself was poorly organized, and sight lines, both of what you could see and what you couldn’t were not well thought out. The curtains, which were not pulled out all the way, interfered with what you could see, and were out of place with the rest of the set. Some of the “backstage” areas were in sightlines, so actors were visible when they broke character. And moving set pieces squeeeeked of Styrofoam as they were pushed around, which was not quite as grating as nails on a chalkboard, but almost.

The lighting was also something of a mess. If the job of the lights was no more than to make sure the actors who need to be were always illuminated when they needed to, they failed even at this, but there’s more to what is required of the lights even than that.

The light stayed a relatively constant yellow for the duration of the show. Night was only a little darker than day, locations all looked and felt the same, and nothing distinguished the bright and mythical story line of Don Quixote from the dark and incarcerated one of Cervantes other than textual cues, which often didn’t come until a while after the scene had changed. Additionally, there should have been spotlights tracking the main players, if not in each scene, then during the songs, drawing a subtle attention to the key players in each scene, instead, actors, even the ones important to the scene, wandered in and out of the lighted area, and quite frequently had black holes for eyes. Even without spotlights, that should have been fixed, along with the lights that were visible below the borders.

Overall, the production came up lacking, and SMuTCo came away from a losing battle with a windmill.