Phamaly's Man of La Mancha is impossibly good

PHAMALY's production of Man of La Mancha is a triumph. Not because the vitality and momentum of this very fine musical make you forget that all the performers in the PHAMALY company are disabled — some in wheelchairs, some stumbling, some unable to see. And not because these actors are so good that after a while their handicaps become invisible. It's because everyone involved — actors, director Steve Wilson, set and costume designers, choreographers and musical director Donna Debrecini — understands the artistic possibilities of the human body, damaged or not. They know how to transcend a physical problem, how to minimize it, and when it can be used to add drama or authenticity. The scene in which Aldonza — the impoverished maid whom Don Quixote insists on identifying as his lady, Dulcinea — is attacked and raped is always upsetting, but when you see Regan Linton actually torn from her wheelchair during this sequence, your revulsion is so strong that it feels like someone running a grater over your skin. Even more upsetting is the entrance a short while later, in which she pulls herself with agonizing slowness along the floor. As for Aldonza's attackers, it's clear that Wilson and fight director Geoff Kent have thought long and hard about their differing abilities, about which of them can climb onto the table where Aldonza has been placed, and who can simply lean in and gesture menacingly, and they've managed to create from these varying movements a vividly choreographed dance of violence. And then there are the horses: two magnificent steeds prancing together onto the stage, each comprised of one ambulatory actor and one in a wheelchair, moving with an elegance and panache that could drive The Lion King's genius dance and puppet mistress Julie Taymer wild with envy.

Man of La Mancha is the story of writer-adventurer Cervantes and his middle-aged, delusional, would-be knight, Don Quixote. It's a story within a story, in which the edge between fantasy and reality blurs again and again. With its message of hope and clear-eyed recognition of the grim realities that continually undercut hope, it's a perfect vehicle for PHAMALY – and it doesn't hurt that the musical's two principal actors give the performances of a lifetime. Leonard Barrett's star quality is on full display as Cervantes/Don Quixote. Barely recognizable in his makeup, completely immersed in the role, masterful, powerful and tender, he controls the stage whenever he's on it. Unlike the usual musical comedy performer, Barrett is a jazz singer. He brings soaring conviction to the show's title song, and his take on "The Impossible Dream" is just original enough to make this sentimental old favorite fresh again. Linton more than matches him moment for moment, with a blazing, incandescent fire that I'll remember for a long, long time. When her Aldonza melted into tenderness at the play's end, I cried. So did everyone else.

Sancho Panza is usually a hefty, rollicking figure, but Jeremy Palmer is slender and intellectual-looking, with a very pleasant tenor. He provides an excellent foil for Barrett's full-blooded and sometimes fumbling Quixote. There are other notable performances from Mark Dissette, Jason Dorwart, Stephen Hahn, the sweet-singing Don Mauck and Daniel Traylor, but I could easily single out every one of the 32 people in the cast for praise, because each brings such an intense and shining-eyed concentration to the work.

If the cast is inspirational, so is the audience. These aren't the kind of theater-goers who sit back in their chairs waiting to be entertained. These people are present body and soul, leaning in to the action; you can feel a palpable current between them and the performers. Most are able-bodied, but all of them know that this is not a condition to be taken for granted. PHAMALY is always good, but at its best – as the company is here – it's a revelation, a living demonstration of how the human spirit can transcend physical limitation. My friend and I left the theater feeling saddened, exhilarated and joyful all at once. As we walked to our car, a woman came up behind us and started talking about how much she'd loved the play and what it meant to her, so full of feeling that she couldn't wait to get home to express it, and instead had to share her response with strangers.

That's theater, folks. That's how it's supposed to be.