With certain well-known stage shows, simply ordering up a ticket can be an act of faith and courage. As someone who sees 60 to 70 plays a year, many of them repeats of the same favorites over and over, I can’t help but end up with favorites (Proof, which I’ve seen in five different productions; Hamlet, nine productions) and one or two least favorites. Man of La Mancha, Dale Wasserman’s 1965 musical adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel Don Quixote, is a show that is beloved by many, but not by me. Despite an intriguing central device—Cervantes spins the Don Quixote story while in prison, using his fellow prisoners as “actors” in his tale—and a song, “Impossible Dream,” which stands as one of the most beautiful and stirring anthems ever written for the stage, Man of La Mancha is a play fundamentally beset by problems.
Structurally, its story-within-a-story-within-a-story concept is not easy to pull off coherently, demanding Herculean feats from its lead actor, who has to play Cervantes playing the mad Alonso Quijano, who thinks he’s a knight name Don Quixote, and to offer defined characterizations of each one. This is not as easily done as said. In the last production of La Mancha I dragged myself to, the actor played all three exactly the same, making it impossible for the audience to feel the pathos and tragedy intended by the playwright.
Then there’s the matter of the rape scene, in which the country peasant girl Aldonza, inspired by the mad “Quixote” to show kindness to a band of ruffians, instead falls victim to them. Attempts are often made to stage this scene as some sort of “ballet” or stylized contrivance, which usually results in an already horrifying scene being drawn out and made even more unwatchable. Suffice it to say, Man of La Mancha is a problem play, and few companies have the resources or genius needed to make it work.
Jim Dunn, on the other hand, is a director whose specialty is problem plays. Having helmed 27 consecutive Mountain Plays, he’s proven that the more problematic a show is, the better it ends up when he’s the director. Such was the case two years ago with Hair, a play even more flawed then La Mancha; in Dunn’s hands, it was spectacular.
So here I am saying that the Mountain Play version of Man of La Mancha, one of my least favorite shows, is not only the best musical I’ve seen this year, it’s the best production of La Mancha I’ve ever seen.
Even the ending got me, so thoroughly caught up in Dunn’s vision was I by the climax that I sat there blubbering along with 2,000 other audience members as Aldonza finds the dying Quijano and shares what his “impossible dream” has meant to her.
In the difficult lead, William Elsman never lets us forget that there is a frightened, somewhat calculating idealist (Cervantes) under Quixote’s fake beard and stagy deliveries. As the madman’s devoted servant Sancho Panza, comic actor Randy Nazarian is pitch-perfect, fusing the vocal comedy of Dom DeLuise with the wild physicality of Nathan Lane. And as Aldonza/Dulcinea, Linda Gaudianni is outstanding, convincingly fierce and fragile at the same. All three have strong singing voices, though on opening day the high notes were challenging them all a bit.
The vast outdoor stage area of Mt. Tam’s Cushing Amphitheater is perfect for this show, allowing Dunn to create the imposing fortress where Cervantes is kept, to populate it with a large cast of fellow prisoners, and to even include the famous windmill with which Cervantes does battle. With such a large canvass, Dunn works wonders (note the second act’s brawl scene, a pandemonium of action) that would have looked lame on a smaller stage. At the same time, he knows when to hold back; the rape scene, staged here more as a taunt-filled abduction, is effectively dramatic, but avoids the kind of audience-shattering detail so many directors choose.
In nearly every way, this show is a triumph. The problems are there, but through cleverly avoidance and misdirection, they hardly seem to matter. Wisely, director Dunn keeps his emphasis on the fun and action of Cervantes’ story, and ultimately convinces us that Quixote’s beautiful dreams, mad or not, are worth fighting for.
‘Man of La Mancha’ runs Sundays at 1pm through June 21, with one Saturday performance on June 13. $23&–$40. Performances held at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre on Mount Tamalpais. Shuttle busses available and recommended. For full details, visit [ http://www.mountainplay.org/ ]www.mountainplay.org.
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