Although Man of La Mancha first opened in New York in 1965, I'd somehow managed to go all these years without seeing it. I had heard the songs, of course -- who hasn't? -- but I thought of the musical as soggy and dated and had no intention of attending the current Country Dinner Playhouse production. But the friend who usually accompanies me on theater trips has a remarkably smart, quizzical and artistically inclined fourteen-year-old son who likes musicals, so Man of La Mancha it was.
Despite the sunny charm of the Barnstormer who brought our drinks, I was grumpy as I contemplated the little red lamps glowing on every table, the overwhelming small-town, big-grin ambience of the place and my plate of too-long-on-the-steam-table, church-potluck-style food. Once we'd eaten, the Barnstormers began the evening's entertainment, and they didn't do a lot to improve my mood. There were some terrific voices in the group, but the overall style and choreography of this pre-show set seemed to be getting more depressingly synthetic every time I visited. There was also the memory of the last show I'd seen at Country Dinner nagging at the back of my mind: Ain't Misbehavin', in which four performers who possessed all kinds of swagger, voice and charisma were sent jiggling and jumping around the stage, betraying both their own talent and the Fats Waller songs. Finally, we listened to the birthday-anniversary ditty and heard the usual warnings about keeping the aisles clear.
As the overture begins, we're transported to an underground dungeon in sixteenth-century Spain, with ragged, half-human creatures scuttling or lolling in the corners. Creaking and shuddering, a ladder descends, admitting the sixteenth-century author Cervantes and his manservant to what looks like one of the lower circles of hell. There he will remain, he is told, at the pleasure of the Spanish Inquisition, for perhaps an hour, perhaps a lifetime. To mollify his fellow prisoners, who accuse him of being "an idealist, a bad poet and an honest man" and threaten to burn his manuscript, Cervantes agrees to a trial. He will tell them the story of his novel; if they like it, they will acquit him. The novel concerns Don Quixote, a country gentleman infatuated with the age of chivalry who imagines himself a knight errant and sets out on a quest with his servant, Sancho Panza. Quixote sees a small country inn as a castle, a barber's bowl as a helmet, a brutalized prostitute, Aldonza, as his fair lady, Dulcinea. Periodically, however, his fantasies desert him, and he's forced to deal with the wretched world that everyone else around him sees only too clearly.
There are levels and levels of reality here, and the excellent Gary Lindemann plays a kind of triple role: Cervantes himself, acting out a novel in which the protagonist acts out the role of knight -- a device that raises all the familiar questions about an author's relationship with a character, particularly one who's engaged in busily creating a fiction of his own. None of the boundaries are clear-edged. The real-life Cervantes was mocking an outdated romantic convention that also moved him. Dale Wasserman's script, along with the songs of Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion ("To Dream the Impossible Dream"; "Dulcinea") may edge toward sentimentality, but it does not downplay the horrors of Cervantes's time -- the casual brutality, the miserable lives of the poor, the terror of the Inquisition. Though there's hope at the end of the musical, it feels as insubstantial as Quixote's dreams -- but also perhaps as enduring.
Despite the fact that we've heard them over and over again, the big songs retain their impact; there's pleasure, too, in encountering those that are less well known, such as "The Psalm" and "Little Bird, Little Bird." Under the direction of Mitch Samu, the music is eloquent, particularly the guitar work of Neil Haverstick. And for the first time in the years I've attended musicals at the Playhouse, the sound levels are right. The music doesn't deafen or overwhelm, but creeps into our ears to seduce.
The production is full of fine performances and good voices. This being dinner theater, I'd feared that Aldonza would be a porcelain beauty with a smudge of soot on her forehead, or one of those idiotically grinning cruise-ship performers, but Jean Arbeiter makes her fierce and so angry and puzzled by Quixote's insistence that she's a great lady ("Once, just once, would you look at me as I really am?") that when she finally capitulates, it's genuinely touching. Jimmy Ferraro's Sancho Panza is stagier than the other actors but an irresistible figure as, with vast good humor, he weighs skepticism against belief and explains in song that he's going along with Quixote's quest because "I Really Like Him." Craig Lundquist is authoritative as the Governor, and Marcus Waterman is equally so as the unpleasant Dr. Sanson Carrasco. And where did director Paul Dwyer find Jeremy Sortore, whose honeyed tenor soothes the soul on "The Psalm" and lends new levels of irony to the superficially pretty trio "We're Only Thinking of Him," sung with Erica Hursh and Sue Leiser?
Of course, the night isn't all magic. At the first-act finale, some kitchen appliance gurgles into loud action and keeps going and going. Still, as the play ends, the folks in the audience -- these people who some producers assume want nothing more than cute, happy songs and performers -- are on their feet, hollering. Something magical has happened, and they know it.
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