Still Speaking to Our
"Man of La Mancha"
Back when we saw the original
“Man of La Mancha,” it was playing at the makeshift ANTA Theater on the
NYU campus before making the move to Broadway. We were very young then,
part of a generation that believed in such things as the possibility of
good triumphing over terrible odds, and “Man of La Mancha” with its theme
of moral heroism suited our youthful ideals. Leaving the theater, we felt
uplifted, capable of dreaming impossible dreams. Recently, on a rainy
Wednesday night some 36 years later, we took our seats at the Martin Beck
Theater to see the new Broadway production of “Man of La Mancha” and
wondered whether such a response could still be possible.
Happily it is. “Man of La
Mancha” remains a soaring, age-defying paean to the potential of the human
spirit. Mitch Leigh’s complex and rapturous score combined with Joe
Darion’s lyrics – in turn humorous, brutal, romantic, and inspiring --
still stir the soul. And Dale Wasserman’s play within a play where Miguel
Cervantes dramatizes his Don Quixote story before a jury of fellow
prisoners while awaiting the judgment of the Spanish Inquisition still
carries one along in the force of its dramatic sweep.
But this is a re-imagined “Man
of La Mancha.” The austere and abstract setting of the original
production has been replaced with an enormous, dark and clanging 16th
century dungeon at the bottom of a pit whose depth is suggested by a
stairway that spirals upward to no visible end. With high tech wizardry,
the dank common room where prisoners await trial transforms into inn,
confessional, bedroom, scene on the plains of La Mancha. The ominous
stairway rotates and splits to reveal a field of sunflowers; the high
prison walls open up to a field of stars. It is a vision that conjures up
gothic Spain: terrifying, earthy, passionate, sublime.
The sublime is well
represented by the beautiful and talented Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who,
as Aldonza/ Dulcinea, projects a tough sensuality with an affecting modern
attitude that gives way to ethereal purity as Don Quixote reaches the part
of her she never knew existed. Her mellifluous voice is lovely,
particularly in its higher registers. Ernie Sabella is wonderfully amusing
as the earnest and loyal squire Sancho Panza who struggles to steer his
mad master through a hostile and cruel world. The rest of the cast
performs to perfection from priest to muleteer to gypsy dancing girl.
And then there is Brian Stokes
Mitchell, a leading man in the mold of Alfred Drake, who through his
velvet baritone and deeply felt characterization firmly establishes
himself as Cervantes/humanist-poet and Don Quixote/delusional would-be
knight – the Man of La Mancha of our age.
Midway in the one-act play,
when Aldonza, puzzled and frustrated by Don Quixote’s adoration, asks what
he means by “quest,” the knight-errant responds with the song that from
the start stepped out of the show and went on to become one of the most
performed numbers in entertainment history. Beginning quietly and in
almost explanatory tones, “To dream the impossible dream . . .,” Mitchell
sings the song through. Then moving downstage center and up a key, he
reprises in the fullness of his glorious voice, “To reach the unreachable
star/though you know it’s impossibly far . . .” ending in a rousing
crescendo that brought the audience to its feet with cheers and applause
exceeded only by the prolonged standing ovation that greeted the curtain
That a packed house welcomed
this revival with such effusion is proof enough of the continued vitality
of “Man of La Mancha,” a play that for all its entertainment pleasures is
ultimately about transformation. Cervantes becomes Don Quixote, Aldonza/the
whore becomes Dulcinea/the virtuous maiden, the prisoners become dreamers
infused with hope, and we in the audience become people reminded of our
better selves - even in this age of irony and disillusionment.
What an accomplishment for a
play few expected to succeed the first time around that nevertheless
caught fire and went on to win five Tony Awards including Best Musical.
Back when we saw it the first time around, Brooks Atkinson had already
summed it up best: "'Man of La Mancha,'" the eminent critic had said, "is
stage literature." And literature lives on.
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