Implausible dream

By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 28, 2007
ailable opportunities, but this touring production, directed and choreographed by Sam Viverito, can’t quite muster the energy. Even a dance scene jingling with Arabian belly dancers drew only polite applause.
 
It is the late 16th century and Miguel de Cervantes (Steve McCoy), an author with a day job as a tax collector, is in jail for felony bad judgment: he assessed taxes on a church. He and his manservant are manhandled by other prisoners, but of all the possessions he has with them, the one he most wants to protect is a manuscript. The thugs in the dungeon propose a trial, after which he will hand over everything if he can’t convince them he’s innocent. Being an actor as well, he has a trunk full of costumes, and the prisoners agree to help him act out the story of the unfinished book that he’s using as his defense.
 
Cervantes becomes the nobleman Alonso Quijana, his servant the faithful squire Sancho Panza (Michael Barra). The doddering country squire, living in his imagination and enamored of tales of chivalry, renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha. The tenor of his adventurous spirit and lack of success is established by his mistaking a windmill for a four-armed giant ogre and jousting at it to bruising consequences. The code of chivalry also requires that he defend damsels in distress. None being at hand, he makes due by detecting maidenhood in Aldonza (Tess Rohan), a kitchen servant and after-hours prostitute at a tavern he takes to be a castle. He renames her Dulcinea, the fair lady he has dreamed of and sought all his life.
 
The song “Dulcinea” establishes the child-like tone of his idealism: “I see heaven when I see thee, Dulcinea/ And thy name is like a prayer/An angel whispers . . . Dulcinea.” In the most familiar song from the musical, “The Impossible Dream,” the old man’s striving takes on mythic ambition when he starts speaking of a quest “to fight for the right/Without question or pause/To be willing to march into hell/For a heavenly cause!” The trouble is — this being an entertainment rather than a philosophy — his message is that delusion is preferable to disappointment. This way madness and Kool-Aid lie (not to mention a second Iraq war).
 
Rohan as the reluctant Dulcinea has the strongest presence here, in a role that requires a stalwart character as well as a good voice. She has the most to gain from Quixote’s imperative: “Thou art not what thou art, but what thou might become.” (He has his work cut out for him, since she replies that the Earth is a dung heap and we mortals just maggots upon it.) Unfortunately, McCoy’s Cervantes needs a dose of charisma, especially in the above scene-setting songs, to give their high-minded sentimentalities flesh and blood foundation. But McCoy goes for stridency when he needs restraint.
 
Barra as Sancho is properly amiable. Dean Bellais as the innkeeper and the governor in the play-within-the-play has the sort of command presence and acting chops that the title role needs. Similarly capable is Shawn Pennington as an imprisoned duke who also plays the Knight of Mirrors, a confrontation that brings Quixote’s delusion to a thundering collapse. (If you’re bothered that all their elaborate costumes couldn’t come from a single trunk or that the prisoners aren’t acting their unfamiliar roles with scripts in hand, you are at the wrong show.)
 
More than most musicals, the medium of the actual production is the message in Man of La Mancha, even more than whatever the actors are insisting. Leaving Cervantes and the first novel in Western literature aside, if we are to believe that imagination can rescue us from a sometimes horrific world, we need to be convincingly shown and not just told that’s so.
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