Tilting at Windmills

Man of La Mancha

At the Rubicon Theatre, Sunday, October 8. Shows through November 12.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

La-Mancha-241.jpgThe Rubicon Theatre has a genuine hit on its hands with this revival of Dale Wasserman’s classic musical Man of La Mancha. Shoehorned onto the modest Rubicon stage was a terrific cast of 25, including George Ball, who was marvelous in the title role, and Jennifer Shelton, a gifted actress and singer who gave her all to the part of Aldonza. Both the music and the direction were expert in this Sunday showing. With the rhythm section of the orchestra driving the score forward from a hidden-away backroom and a tremendous and scary drawbridge as the set’s central physical element, the overall effect was like seeing a big Broadway musical from the best seats in the house.

Man of La Mancha is a play within a play depicting Cervantes’s true-life imprisonment during the Spanish Inquisition. As a way of appeasing his fellow prisoners, the poet improvises a jailhouse version of his work in progress, Don Quixote, using the “talent” available to him. It’s a clever and effective conceit, but it pales in comparison to the story of the “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” that occupies the center of the show’s frame. Few myths of any kind have proven as durable and evocative as that of this man whose madness redeems him and those around him. In a complex interplay of dream, reality, romance, and comedy, Cervantes sets up a sequence of scenes, each of which contains some primal moment of theatrical invention. “The Quest,” the real name for the “Impossible Dream” song that has become the play’s best-known feature, remains one of the supreme examples of a rousing first act closing number, and Ball certainly rose to the occasion.

The second act in this production belonged to Shelton’s Aldonza. Her singing was flawless, and her assured acting turned the play’s most difficult scene — Don Quixote’s deathbed recognition — into an emotional climax. Other standouts included Jamie Torcellini as Sancho, Randal Keith as the innkeeper, Brian MacDonald as the barber, and Gary Lee Reed as the padre. (Fans of Santa Barbara’s Rod Lathim should be interested to know that he will take over the part of Sancho in a few weeks.) James O’Neil, Karyl Lynn Burns, and the entire Rubicon team brought this timeless musical to the stage with style and passion.

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