Man of la Mancha
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 29, 2007
It may seem corny, at least in today's day and age, to believe in the quest that Don Quixote sings about in "The Impossible Dream," the signature anthem from Man of La Mancha, Dale Wassermann, Mitch Leigh, and Joe Darion's rousing musical version of the classic novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Here's a sample:
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
To commit oneself to the pursuit of such an ideal may appear downright cockamamie—it certainly does to many of the denizens of La Mancha, the arid Spanish province where the show takes place. What's in it for them? How do they benefit from being decent, forthright, and true? Anyone who asks themselves that question may need this show as much as its dirty, mud-caked inhabitants do. For the answer is evident in Man of La Mancha's staunch ideological conviction that the path of righteousness must be followed no matter how crazy it looks to anyone else. The new revival at the White Plains Performing Arts Center highlights the show's fervent beliefs thanks, in part, to an equally urgent performance by veteran leading man Robert Cuccioli and Luke Yankee's solid direction.
The show opens in a 16th century jail where prisoners await trial at the hands of the Inquisition. Enter Cervantes himself, whose day job as a tax collector has landed him in the slammer (he issued a foreclosure on a church). Facing an informal trial at the hands of his fellow prisoners (a new inmate ritual, it turns out), Cervantes mounts his own defense in order to save his earthly possessions, all of which he'll lose if found guilty, including a thick manuscript he's particularly attached to.
Cervantes's defense turns out to be nothing less than the epic story contained within the manuscript, a tome that will eventually become his legendary novel, Don Quixote. And with that, Man of La Mancha is off and running, following the adventures of its anachronistic title character, a nobleman gone crazy who believes himself to be a knight-errant. Accompanied by his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, Quixote sallies forth into the world, tilting at windmills and encouraging chivalry in a world that no longer believes in it. Along the way he encounters Aldonza, a jaded serving wench and whore at the local inn; Dr. Carrasco, his niece's fiancé, who is determined to have Quixote committed; and a surly bunch of muleteers. The clash of their nihilistic world views with Quixote's honorable demeanor is the crux of the story.
La Mancha presents several strong counterpoints to Quixote's "Impossible Dream," starting with Aldonza's bleak introductory song, "It's All the Same" (where she sings that "One pair of arms is like another..."). Later, Sancho tells why he follows his master in the chipper and self-explanatory "I Really Like Him." Quixote's niece Antonia, Dr. Carrasco, and the local Padre have their say in "I'm Only Thinking of Him," in which their seeming altruism is betrayed by self-interest. All these opposing viewpoints set Quixote on a collision course with the world-at-large, which collectively seeks to burst his rose-colored bubble. Carrasco and the muleteers, in particular, each set upon Don Q. in a manner that eventually tests his mettle.
Cuccioli, as reliable a leading man as contemporary musical theatre has, delivers the goods once again. He is simply money in the bank, and if you've never seen him perform now would be a good time to do so. He commits to the role wholeheartedly, delivering a Quixote that does indeed burn "with the fire of inner vision," as Cervantes puts it. Add to that Cuccioli's trademark rich baritone, and you've got the makings of a clear, meticulously executed performance. If his Don Q. sometimes errs more towards the doddering than the heroic, it still doesn't take away from the overall richness of his work.
The rest of the production is less consistent, but no less entertaining. Rosena M. Hill plays Aldonza more as a cranky diva than a world-beaten cynic, but she possesses a commanding voice and gets the job done. Carlos Lopez goes for easy laughs as Sancho, but is best when he plays the sincere moments for real. The muleteers could stand to add a little grime to their jazz-hands-ish polish, but when they reach their Act II showdown with Aldonza they're plenty grimy. Yankee's entire production could use a little more edginess to temper its musical theatre slickness—La Mancha is one of the few mainstream musicals that benefits from an intense Actors Studio approach—but it hits all the high points with bulls-eye precision. And, the show is so robust and well-written to begin with that its strengths rise to the top no matter what.
Early in Act I, Cervantes is snidely accused of being an idealist, to which he responds, "An idealist? I've never had the courage to believe in nothing." That sums up Man of La Mancha perfectly: it's a show that believes one hundred percent in something because the alternative is too grim. WPPAC's revival urges theatergoers to embrace the impossible dream that lives inside them, whatever it is. Sage advice, if ever I heard any.