Based on the seventeenth-century masterpiece Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, Man of La Mancha was an award-gobbling sensation when it first appeared in 1965 — but after decades of professional and community productions, the musical has less impact. Still, the Arvada Center has mounted a big, sumptuous show, filled with rich and exciting voices.
The action consists of a play within a play. Or perhaps a story within a story within a story. At the beginning, author Cervantes descends into a murky dungeon filled with desperate and threatening figures. He has been imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition and is waiting to be called for a trial that could set him free, imprison him for years, or result in his death. But his immediate problem is the hostility of his fellow inmates, and he offers them a deal that mirrors the Inquisition ordeal itself: He will tell them a story. If they like it, they will leave him and his possessions — including the manuscript for Don Quixote, which they’ve already threatened to burn — unharmed. They agree, and he acts out the novel with their help, using a trunkload of props and clothes he has with him. Don Quixote, of course, is about a deluded old gentleman who has read so many books about chivalry that he believes himself a knight of old, and this fantasy shapes his entire life. He sets out on a quest to vanquish evil and find his heart’s true love. In the course of his travels, Don Quixote mistakes a shabby country inn for a castle and a barber’s bowl for a golden helmet. And when he encounters the grimy and abused kitchen maid, Aldonza, he believes her to be the noble lady Dulcinea.
Cervantes was no stranger to hardship. He fought and was wounded in battle, suffered debt and penury, and himself spent many years in prison. All this accounts for the darkness at the edges of this essentially sunny and optimistic musical, a darkness that director Rod Lansberry has honored here. The set (by Brian Mallgrave) and lighting (Shannon McKinney) are menacing and shadowy; at key moments, the prisoners begin an agitated, threatening drumming. We are reminded several times of the terrifying realities of the Inquisition that frame the story. Written at a time when half the country’s young people believed they could change a fossilized political system through art, hope and creative protest, Man of La Mancha — book by Dale Wasserman, songs by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion — shows Don Quixote as more heroic than deluded, heroic precisely because of his crazed, tilting-at-windmills idealism. These days, “To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe...to reach the unreachable star” is usually interpreted more as a vague Hallmark-style affirmation than a call to struggle. But the ending — which suggests that even if pure-hearted fantasy can’t move the world, it can change the heart and mind of one downtrodden and abused woman — retains its original power.
The last production of Man of La Mancha I saw was presented by the physically handicapped actors of Phamaly, and it was more in tune with the ethos of the 1960s. It took place in the round, in the intimate Space Theatre at the Denver Center, and the actors’ physical proximity really brought home the brave vulnerability of Leonard Barrett’s Don Quixote and the moment of horror when wheelchair-bound Regan Linton, playing Aldonza, was violently attacked, ripped from her chair, and forced to reclaim it with a long, agonizing crawl across the stage.
The Arvada Center production is less emotionally involving, but it has its charms. There are several first-rate performances in smaller roles, and the leads are excellent. Jennifer DeDominici, who plays Aldonza/Dulcinea, has a mezzo-soprano of operatic quality, though it’s a shame she only gets to show this sporadically in a role that requires her to sing tough, low and funky. Jeremy Sortore only has two songs as the Padre, but he brings to them a tenor as mellifluous as dark, dark chocolate slowly melting. William Michals’s Cervantes comes across more big-chested musical star than deluded and quixotic old man — but, oh, his voice. Powerful, nuanced, expressive and rich, that voice alone lifts the evening into the stratosphere.