Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Man of La Mancha" vividly envisions the quest for the impossible dream

What motivates someone to endanger himself in to march into hell to accomplish an impossible dream?  What inspires someone to fight the impossible foe?  Why do some people see the best in others, ignoring their scabs, their sores, and their obvious flaws?  Is it a person who is insane, a dreamer, or a fool who sees the world through different eyes than the rest of society?

Dale Wasserman’s book, Joe Darion’s lyrics, and Mitch Leigh’s music, which form the basis for “Man of La Mancha,” pose these questions.  Answers aren’t presented, but a gauntlet is thrown down for those who view a production of the masterfully developed musical to answer those questions for themselves, and in the process, even be inspired to become a Don Quixote.  To become a dreamer with a cause, who follows the creed, “My destiny calls and I go, And the wild winds of fortune , Will carry me onward,  Oh whithersoever they blow. Onward to glory I go!”

The multi-award winning “Man of La Mancha,” which was adapted from Wasserman’s non-musical 1959 teleplay, “I, Don Quixote” was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth century “Don Quixote,” is now on stage at the Stratford Festival. 

It tells the tale of a “mad” knight, Don Quixote, a creative writer and poet, who in a play within a play, tells the tale of Miguel de Cervantes, failed author/soldier/tax collector and Sancho, his manservant, waiting for their hearing before a tribunal set up during the Spanish inquisition to try “criminals” for crimes supposedly committed against the church.  As the tale unfolds, his fellow prisoners want to destroy a manuscript that tells the tale of Don Quixote, a dreamer/do-gooder.  Cervantes agrees to be put on trial to protect his manuscript.  He involves the prisoners in the tale telling.

With the aid of a makeup kit and items contained in a trunk, he is transformed into Don Quixote, a man who believes himself to be a chivalrous knight, who fights dragons (a windmill), sees a castle (a rundown roadside inn), regards a prostitute to be a virginal saint of purity, and fights battles to correct wrongs.  As he finishes his tale, he is taken out of the dungeon to face his real accusers.

The score is glorious and includes the humorous “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and “I Like Him,” the poignant “Dulcinea,” the probing “What Does He Want of Me?,” the compelling “Knight of the Mirrors, and the inspiring “The Impossible Dream,” one of the greatest songs ever written for the American musical stage.

The original Broadway production opened in 1965, ran 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Richard Kiley won a Tony for his performance of Cervantes/Quixote.  Clevelander Joan Diener won accolades as Aldonza.

The script has been revived four times on Broadway and has had numerous local theatre productions.

The Stratford production, under the razor sharp direction of Robert McQueen is excellent.  The multi-leveled set design, with the over-arching large windmill, the center focus of Quixote’s quest, helps create the right mood for the fantasy.  The well-played music supports rather than over-powers the singers.   The sound system allows for a clear understanding of the spoken and sung dialogue.

Tom Rooney is superb as Cervantes/Quixote/Quijana.  His singing voice is strong.  He creates clear images with the lyrics by singing ideas, not just words.  His acting creates a believable image of a man possessed by desire, leaving open the option of whether he is sane or a madman. 

Robin Hutton’s characterization of Aldonza clearly displays a woman whose life has been a living hell, highlighted by being a victim of rape, abandonment and abuse.  Her singing voice is excellent.   Her interpretation of “What Does He Want of Me?” is heart wrenching.

Steve Ross plays the role of Sancho as a quiet follower, rather than a delightful bumbler.  Though acceptable, he misses out some of the humor that Wasserman inserted to lightened the script’s intensity.

Though a little too clean cut looking to be treacherous criminals, the chorus universally develops clear characterizations.

Capsule judgement:  Stratford’s “Man of La Mancha” is an exceptionally well-conceived and performed production of one of the American musical theatre’s great scripts.  Short of having seen the original Broadway production (which was breathtakingly effective), a viewing of this staging is a wonderful second place and makes for an unforgettable theatrical experience!  Applause, applause, applause! 

For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to