There’s something impossible about the Arvada Center’s production of the nearly 50-year-old musical “Man of La Mancha.”
For any devoted theater fan, the 1964 musical by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh is a well-worn staple that’s likely to have lost its sheen after countless cycles on stages at high schools, colleges, regional theaters and even in the 1972 film starring Peter O’Toole. Heck, even the most casual theatergoer or Broadway passerby is likely to know some version of the show’s most celebrated anthem, “The Impossible Dream.” Like “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cats” or “Les Miserables,” it’s a musical that’s hard to present in a new way.
But somehow, director Rod Lansberry and the Arvada Center cast manage to escape the burden of familiarity in this production that breathes fresh life into the story of Don Quixote and his creator, Spanish novelist and playwright Miguel De Cervantes. The show feels dynamic and unprecedented, thanks in large part to the efforts of a stunning ensemble helmed by William Michals in the lead role. Innovative and captivating work by set designer Brian Mallgrave and lighting designer Shannon McKinney also makes the show feel new. It’s a versatile production that easily flips between a dreary dungeon cell during the Spanish Inquisition and an imagined world of errant knights, roving Moors and fantastical quests. Michals seamlessly switches between roles as the imprisoned writer Cervantes and his hapless and frail protagonist Don Quixote. The rest of the ensemble cast makes similar transitions. Aurora Fox veteran Ben Dicke is heartfelt and charming in turns as Cervantes’ manservant and Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire. The rest of the ensemble makes transforms from a crowd of doomed inmates into innkeepers, priests, barbers, Gypsies and Moorish princesses.
Of course, the dual nature of Wasserman’s script demands those kinds of dramatic shifts. The show is more than a straightforward adaptation of Cervantes’ epic novel from the early 17th century. It delves into the trials of the Spanish author himself, opening up in the dank prison cells of Seville in the late 1500s. Cervantes and his manservant are awaiting questioning. In order to save his beloved manuscript from destruction at the hands of the other inmates, Cervantes launches into the story of the errant knight Don Quixote. He dons a wig and fake beard and steps into the lead role from his own story.
That’s where the full scope and majesty of the Arvada Center’s production kicks in. As soon as Cervantes takes on the mantle of Don Quixote, the stage and atmosphere transforms. Mallgrave’s dreary dungeon setting transforms into the Spanish countryside, where Quixote and his faithful servant Sancho Panza set off in search of adventure and glory. Musical Director David Nehls breathes life into the score, blending chords from Flamenco guitars with grandiose orchestration.
The twist of Cervantes’ tale is that Don Quixote is no errant knight. He’s the entirely fictional alter-ego of Alonso Quijana, a retired Spanish gentleman lost in a dream world. He sees himself as a champion of chivalry, a mythical hero doing battle with ogres, retrieving magical artifacts and courting a noble lady named Dulcinea. In reality, he’s wielding a crooked blade to battle windmills and courting Aldonza (Jennifer DeDominici), a rough kitchen wench with a checkered past. As he woos his beloved Dulcinea and seeks to win glory as Don Quixote, Quijana’s family desperately seek a way to bring him back to himself.
The story unfolds as Cervantes awaits his turn at the hands of torturers, and Lansberry creates a stunning dichotomy in the space of a single show. There’s the unsettling drama that unfolds in the depths of a dungeon, and there’s the grandiose musical exploits of Don Quixote. In creating those two separate spheres, the show puts the story in its proper historical context.
Michals is equally defiant in his roles as Cervantes and Quixote; Dicke is equally endearing in his roles as an artist’s companion and the long-suffering Sancho Panza; DeDominici is luminescent as Aldonza, a woman embittered by a life of hardships. All of this intensity has a powerful effect. Even during the most lighthearted moments of the errant knight’s tale, the grim reality of the Inquisition is never far away. When the “The Impossible Dream” comes at the end of the first act, its themes about persistence carry a good deal of weight.
It’s more than well-trod Broadway anthem. Like the rest of this powerful production, the tune turns into a deeper statement about sticking to one’s ideals, even in the face of torture, death and adversity.
THREE AND A HALF STARS OUT OF FOUR
“Man of La Mancha” runs until April 14 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada. Tickets start at $59. Information: 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707