Chivalry's Nearly Killed

To dismiss Cervantes's epic novel about the quintessential dreamer Don Quixote as an insubstantial story about chivalry is like saying that King Lear is just a grumpy old man's four-hour rant. Or that Chekhov's four comic masterpieces are simply boring talky dramas in which nothing ever really happens. And even though Man of LaMancha is Broadway's tuneful version of the classic Cervantes tale, that doesn't necessarily mean that it lacks depth, variety or scope.

The show boasts a cavalcade of memorable, stirring and humorous tunes--a winning combination that's eluded most musical composers in the more than 33 years since LaMancha (with book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion) first graced a Greenwich Village stage. The near-operatic tale also illuminates the importance of clinging to one's ideal version of life instead of falling victim to reality's hard truths. But unless the musical is as well-acted as it is sung (a lesson, by the way, that opera diva Maria Callas--as played by Gordana Rashovich--is teaching nightly to the Denver Center Theatre Company's audiences), there's not much point in dragging spectators through the play's many layers of illusion and reality.

At first, that doesn't seem like it's going to be a problem with the production by Boulder's Dinner Theatre. Although Leigh's difficult score calls for more of a light-opera touch than the belty approach employed by these musical-theater stalwarts, the performers appear capable of sustaining a believable dynamic for the two-hour, intermissionless drama. Veteran actor Wayne Kennedy consistently finds the tireless determination and impish braggadocio that his leading role of Quixote requires, and he delivers an impressive rendition of the show's signature song, "The Impossible Dream." Kennedy is also affecting as Cervantes, imprisoned for being "an idealist, a bad poet and an honest man," who tells Quixote's story to his fellow inmates.

Furthermore, as Aldonza, the accomplished Joanie Brosseau-Beyette initially portrays the "kitchen slut" as a downtrodden sort who's contemptuous of Quixote's ridiculous claim that she's his "Dulcinea," or perfect woman. Her brassy rendering of "It's All the Same" suggests Aldonza's fiery temperament and well-founded suspicions about philosophers and dreamers, even if the piece's haphazard choreography, fashioned by Stephen Bertles, is uninspired and clumsy--as are most of the evening's dance routines. D.P. Perkins delivers an admirable portrayal of the imperious Dr. Carrasco that's a model of detached insight and measured strength. (Would that Perkins had been cast as Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza, instead of Derek Phipps, whose lightweight portrait is missing the wise fool's sense of phlegmatic loyalty.) Performed against Donna Clement's evocative set design, which brings to mind the classic Spanish courtyard theaters that housed the efforts of Cervantes's playwright contemporaries, the production's first few scenes look promising.

Before the show is barely twenty minutes old, though, the actors regress into musical-theater cliche--antics that make little sense when viewed in the play's larger context. For instance, despite Brosseau-Beyette's sharp delivery of Aldonza's aforementioned song, what reason does she have to direct her full-voiced, no-holds-barred hostility toward Quixote? He's not the type of guy she's used to dealing with (she's probably never even seen him before), and given that he might be a prospective customer, he deserves the benefit of Aldonza's doubt, or at least her passing curiosity. For Kennedy's part, shouldn't he be moved by the mere sight of this wench, instead of showing only casual, then growing, interest? After all, he rapturously sings to her, "I have sought thee, sung thee, dreamed thee" and later tells her, "I have already seen thee in my heart." But as Kennedy renders the scene, the crucial beatification episode seems like a schmaltzy, obligatory bit and not the inspiring revelation that will guide Quixote on his windmill-fighting quest to attain unspeakable glory.

Similarly, when Brosseau-Beyette sings "What Does He Want of Me," the questions Aldonza asks herself should utterly confound and disturb her, not--as the talented musical comedienne performs the song--lightly tickle and amuse. Doesn't it astound Aldonza that a lance-toting stranger is willing to grant her unconditional, Platonic love when every man she's ever known has treated her worse than the dirt beneath her feet--a veritable "dungheap" that Quixote maintains is sacred? And if we're to believe that Quixote is later to blame for giving Aldonza a false illusion about herself, we must become persuaded that Aldonza is on the brink of falling for his flowery praise early on.

Unfortunately, Quixote and Aldonza's critical relationship never gets beyond the lukewarm point in director Scott Beyette's tepid production. As a result, the mounting tension that should precipitate Quixote's tragic fall--and Aldonza's subsequent decision to take up, however briefly, Quixote's cause--never takes shape. What's worse, Beyette stages Quixote's moving demise in an obscure pit at one corner of the stage as a couple of other characters shift their weight from this foot to that. The climactic scene belongs, like Cyrano de Bergerac's final, lyrical episode with Roxanne, center stage without extraneous movement. Quixote's ultimate moment should resemble something along the lines of Michelangelo's Pieta, not Grandpa Walton's sickbed farewell.

The director's ill-advised approach notwithstanding, Leigh's wondrous music remains entrancing, and a few supporting actors manage to inject the drama with some clever, if fleeting, touches. But even though the performers are talented singers, their efforts fall considerably short of championing the play's themes of nobility, grandeur and majesty. For the composers' marvelous vision to materialize, the actors need a far stronger dose of quixotic inspiration.


Man of LaMancha, through June 13 at Boulder's Dinner Theatre, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000.

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Jim Lillie