No matter what you read in this review I’m telling you now that it’s a little fake and writerly, because no matter how objective and smart I try to be in this review, the truth is that this show has been tugging at me to the point of obsession since I saw it at The Gallery Players in Brooklyn last Sunday. The truth is, I’m listening to the soundtrack of the original Broadway production as I type, at times with tears, and all week the words "fight for the right" and "virtue shall triumph at last" have been daring themselves to come out of my cynical, 2008 mouth.
I’m describing Man of La Mancha. Anybody with even a touch of 60s idealist (00s idealist?) should catch it (don’t be put off by the misguided movie). Written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, the is based on part of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote. Its score, with its flamenco rhythms and inspiring balladry, is sophisticated and rousing. And its book has a rare quality of fervor and compassion that is rare on the musical stage (you see it more in opera).
It’s being produced at The Gallery in a straightforward, heartfelt style that brings out all the charm of what the original 1965 Village production must have had too. The Washington Square theatre, though 1100 seats, was small for a big musical. The Gallery space is just 100. The cast is refreshingly unmiked—and while not all of the cast are true belters, it doesn’t matter in this space. They are musical, and more, they are hugely committed to the roles, and they bring the show to life. The show’s themes—the need to resist oppression, seek a better world in the face of all evidence, and yes, dream the impossible dream—hit home today as much as they did then. Don’t you yearn for a little hope? (Obama thinks so!)
The musical, 90 minutes without intermission, is a play-within a play-within a play. We meet the 16th century author Cervantes (Jan-Peter Pedross), thrown into a dungeon for being a little too enthusiastic in his day-job of tax collector—he’s foreclosed on a monastery. While he waits for his interview with the Spanish Inquisition, the other prisoners go through his trunk and attack him. They’re about to burn a packet of worthless papers—his manuscript—when he makes a bargain with the self-styled "governor" of the prison (Justin Herfel). His "defense" will be to demonstrate his play about a country gentleman, Alonso Quijana, who deludedly believes he’s a knight errant, although it’s been 300 years since the age of heraldry. As Pedross intones "I shall impersonate—a man!" and the snare drums begin (the Gallery makes do with an excellent 5-piece combo backstage, which gives the score a pleasant intimacy—the instrumentation unusually never used strings, so the entire score is by turns martial and folk rock-y) you can’t help but feel excited. Everyone in the audience has a tiny, embarrassed smile as Pedross got to the stirring cry of "I am I, Don Quixote!" in the title song.
Cervantes "casts" the prisoners in the roles as he needs them (the prisoners who leaped, literally, into becoming Flamenco-dancing horses on the spot, delighted). Director Tom Wojtunik makes a smart choice to keep the lights up on Cervantes’ onstage audience at all times, and it’s clear that every prisoner has a story to tell, though we don’t hear them. The acting choices are strong. Cervantes casts the governor as the Innkeeper (to Quixote, who we’ve just seen literally tilting at a windmill, the Inn is a Castle). At the Inn, Quixote finds his lady fair—the kitchen slut/whore Aldonza, whom he names Dulcinea. Jennifer McCabe plays Aldonza a little too angrily from the start, but that keeps the contrast strong—her bitter "It’s All the Same" taunts the men who want her favors, while the yearning "Dulcinea" is a love hymn. Meanwhile, Quijana’s niece, Antonia (Dawn Debrow) is worried her uncle’s illness will upset her fiancé, Dr. Carrasco (James Andrew Walsh). Cervantes casts the prisoner called "Duke" in this role, a prisoner who intensely opposes Cervantes for being "an idealist, and an honest man." Debrow’s sweet soprano does well with the trio "I’m Only Thinking of Him," and Angela Dirksen as Housekeeper belts her contribution powerfully, as they try to convince a compassionate Padre (Mark Kirschenbaum) that they must bring Quijana back for his own good.
Quixote’s sidekick Sancho (Robert Anthony Jones) sings "I Like Him," more musically than comically– a choice which works surprisingly well—suggesting that it’s possible to be a down to earth follower of a gloriously insane idealist. If he believes in Quixote,maybe we should, too—and maybe Aldonza should (one of the show’s few missteps is the omission of her gorgeous song "What Do You Want of Me" ). Quixote even manages, temporarily, to tame the Brutish muleteers—they sweetly sing "Little Bird, Little Bird," led by Anselmo (Alex Pearlman, blessed with particularly strong pipes). By "Golden Helmet of Mambrino," in which Quixote convinces a traveling barber (Andrew Boyd, flaming humorously) that his shaving basin is a magical golden helmet, Quixote’s charisma has thoruoughly seduced his hostile onstage audience, as well as the people in the "cheap seats" in the audience. Pedross inhabits "The Impossible Dream," making it freshly inspiring. Musical Director Chris Tilley keeps all the tempos up. And the fight in which Quixote and co. defeat a gang of bullies leads seamlessly into "Knight of the Woeful Countenace," sung by the Innkeeper (Herfel has one of the strongest voices of the company). It’s the Innkeeper who commands Quixote to go on and "fight for the right, and battle all villains that be." And despite his next comment that "when you do, thank god I won’t be there to see"—it’s the conviction of "fight for the right" that sticks with you.
But dreamers often pay a heavy price. Aldonza is rewarded for her newfound idealism with brutality by the muleteers of the Inn, in a staged combat/gang rape that is hard to watch (excellent fight choreography by Ryan Ksprzak) and a mockery of "Little Bird." And Carrasco’s defeat of Quixote—for his own good—is even harder. One of the nicest, funniest moments in the play is when the prisoners strongly protest Cervantes trying to end the story there. But it doesn’t take much convincing to get Cervantes, a bit of a ham, to get up and continue—regardless of the Inquisition’s call. The reprise of Dulcinea at Quijana’s bedside is angelically sung by McCabe, and all over the audience people rustled for tissues and surreptitiously wiped their eyes.
Seriously, can we ask for much more than that in theatre? It isn’t Broadway—the voices, though in tune, aren’t the strongest; the costumes of the Spanish Inquisition look suspiciously ancient Roman (though the prisoners’ are excellent, costume design by David Withrow), though the set of levels and pillars by Martin Andrew serves very well. Wojtunik’s smart direction pulls strong performances from each performer, and he sends the story home with sucker punch to the gut.