Twilght in Manchego
nytheatre.com review by Zachary Fithian
September 26, 2008
Things change. It's inevitable. Especially nowadays, when things are measured in terms of "progress." But perhaps we never really stop to think about the impetus for change. It isn't good enough to accept (or resist) change without knowing why this change is happening. And then, once we see change and begin to understand how it came about, how do we cope? These are the themes that Matt Gould tells us (in an author's note) he wants to explore in his new musical Twilight in Manchego.
The show begins with Leo, an elementary schooler, talking about a map he has drawn of Manchego, his little town, for homework. He complains that things don't look right, that some of the buildings are out of proportion and he can't get the map to match the way he sees the world. But don't fret; we will learn, of course, that no matter how different Leo's map may look from everyone else's, it's still a perfectly fine way to draw the town. But not before he forgets his homework at home and gets yelled at by the teacher!
Manchego isn't entirely filled with sentimental, life-affirming feelings, though. Some folks are resistant to change, like Mrs. Obrie with her desire to continue teaching the old way, without computers! And that doesn't sit well with Esau, the new teacher from the big city who doesn't look a day older than his students. They clash, naturally, and their petty squabbles lead to a pretty significant oversight at the expense of the children. It's the central plot point of the show, so I can't give it away, but suffice it to say that it makes a valiant attempt to tug on your heartstrings. I am an admitted crybaby when it comes to theatre, and as I left the theatre with dry eyes, I knew something was missing.
I hate to say it, but I couldn't help but think that Manchego is a little too cheesy. Sure, a little introspection never hurt anybody, but if I stopped to examine everything that was different about my life, even the big things, I'd be stuck living some kind of meta-life and I'd never get anything done. I'd be enlightened and there'd be a spring in my step, perhaps, but do I really have that kind of time? I may be overly cynical, but the show isn't powerful enough to convince me otherwise. Besides, for all the talk about examining change, the show seems to me to have as much to do, if not more, with Leo's perspective and world view and how that influences the others'.
There's a particular bright spot in Jenna Coker-Jones as Katy Shelaq, the fiery, precocious best friend of Leo. A delightful performer, Coker-Jones also manages to be one of the few members of the class who actually seems to be in elementary school. Most of her classmates are overblown high school stereotypes, but her Katy still has that innocence we expect of younger children. Maybe kids are just growing up faster nowadays, but I don't remember the oversexed jocks turning up that early. The rest of the cast is certainly not lacking in experience with a number of Broadway credits, but the material just didn't live up to their abilities.