How many fictional characters get their own adjectives? Cervantes probably had no idea that his elderly Alonso Quijana -- aka The Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote de La Mancha -- would be as well-loved as he has been, or as thoroughly integrated into modern culture. But Don Quixote speaks to our hidden desire for greatness, honor, courage, and determination. We want him to succeed in his quest even as we realize, along with the loyal Sancho Panza, that those dread giants are actually just windmills, the magnificent castle a lowly inn, and the highborn Dulcinea really a scullery maid who can be had for a few coin.
It's not just readers who identify with the mad La Manchan. Don Quixote has been the doomed darling of filmmakers for decades. Orson Welles tried to make a film in bits and pieces over a period of twenty years, dying before he could finish it, and recent film Lost in La Mancha shows how Terry Gilliam tried and failed. Fortunately, Quixote hasn't eluded the stage. Dale Wasserman's musical debuted in 1965 and has been doing steady business ever since. Now the Willows has taken up Quixote's lance, with impressive results.
The structure of the musical is clever if convoluted. Cervantes himself is thrown in jail for running afoul of the Inquisition. While he awaits his moment with the Inquisitors, his fellow captives put him on trial as well -- a mock trial, in order to separate him from his belongings. He decides the best defense is to stage a play, using the other prisoners and his servant as the actors. The play is the story of how Alonso Quijana, after reading too many chivalric adventures, decides that he is actually a great knight and heads off to right wrongs, slay dragons, and so on. To call Man of La Mancha a play within a play doesn't capture all the layers. It is the whole onion. And the Willows peels it deftly, from the excellent singing to the supremely dank and crepuscular set design.
The three leads -- Rick Williams as Cervantes/Quixote, Ron Pickett as Sancho Panza, and Cathleen Riddley as Aldonza -- are strong singers. When Williams sings "The Impossible Dream," his last note just hangs forever. Pickett, by contrast, is almost pixielike when he sings "I Really Like Him," explaining why he follows the crazy old guy around. And then there's Riddley, who rocked last year's Brave Brood at Transparent. Boy, has she got pipes. Would that Wasserman and company had given Aldonza even more songs, so that Riddley could sing them. Other nice musical moments include the lovely three-part harmony between Eryka Raines, Martin Lewis, and Dana Lewenthal on the satiric "I'm Only Thinking of Him."
This Man of La Mancha is heavy on physical humor -- from the male prisoner who sullenly agrees to play the innkeeper's wife to Aldonza's first taunting dance with the muleteers. Even the guys who play the questers' mounts prove that you don't need lines -- or to have your face visible -- to express character; their tap numbers and well-placed whinnies are totally charming. The fight choreography bears Christopher Morrison's unmistakable stamp, with its occasional Asian flavor; there's a definite Jackie Chan moment with a ladder. Morrison also uses forced perspective to make a scene with a bullwhip read properly -- whips (like flails, ropes, and chains) are tricky for the fight designer because their trajectory isn't predictable like that of something "fixed" such as a rapier. That said, it is unclear if director Holtz is making a statement when he shows the only African-American member of the cast being whipped. Aldonza's abduction is uncomfortable to begin with (parents should think carefully about bringing younger children) but even more so here; if Holtz wanted it to be doubly distressing, he succeeded. Otherwise this Man of La Mancha is a solid crowd-pleaser, stirring and well-made.
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