Arizona Theatre Company's sparkling production of Man of La Mancha delivers the rather miraculous blend of magic, substance, relevance and great fun—all in the same moment.
We could use a bit of the miraculous these days.
Many of us are world-weary. The rich get richer; the poor, poorer. Natural disasters, made more disastrous by our own actions in some cases, wreak havoc; we are polarized by race, class, gender, religion.
We may be jaded. Despairing even. Perhaps we have forgotten how to dream.
In this David Bennett-directed production of the 1965 Dale Wasserman musical (with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion), the dare to dream is sung, sold and sent soaring with force and conviction. Bennett and his crew dare us not to feel the need to imagine a better world.
All this happens because the show melds unique production ideas, talent and skill, passion and joy.
The play is based, very loosely, on the original book by Miguel de Cervantes, a writer born in the mid-16th century. In the early 17th century, he created the fictional character Don Quixote, a deluded or (at the very least) foolish man who yearns to be the chivalrous defender of the weak and wronged. Wasserman's play is set during the Spanish Inquisition, with main character Miguel de Cervantes, the writer himself, being imprisoned because he is a tax collector who foreclosed on a monastery.
Here, director Bennett has placed the story during the chaotic times of Spain's militaristic dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975. Poets are often troublesome to fascist dictators, and here writer Cervantes is thrown into a makeshift prison, a bar, calling himself "a very bad poet but a very honest man."
This updated setting works well without being at all forced, or even worse, precious. And it resonates with us who find ourselves in a strained and uncomfortable political environment.
Cervantes, accompanied by his friend Sancho, finds himself with a rag-tag group of ne'er-do-wells who strip him of his belongings except for the manuscript he begs to keep safe. OK, they say. But you must tell us the story in that precious manuscript.
So begins the play-within-a-play, the story of Don Quixote, an idealistic man with a penchant for seeing the way things ought to be, rather than accepting them as they are.
How does this fall on the ears of a jaded lot like us?
Spectacularly. Thanks to a skilled and committed cast, lead by Philip Hernandez as Cervantes/Don Quixote, these storytellers commit to Bennett's staging with energy and passion.
Oh, and there's no orchestra. Nope. Well, there's no orchestra in the pit. The music is provided by the actors themselves. Can you imagine the headache that must have been for a casting director? We need about 10 really fine actor/singers who can also play—rather expertly—violin, upright bass, guitars, trumpet, percussion and, oh yeah, accordion.
Mission accomplished. The idea works so well here. It provides a unifying sense of all that is happening. No cast up here, musicians down there. And remarkably, the instruments get passed around and exchanged between actors so that they play different instruments in different numbers.
The decision not to have an intermission is also a wise one, because we don't lose the rising action and momentum of the play.
Hernandez anchors the show with his masterful and passionate delivery of a very real Don Quixote, not a caricature of a deluded man lost in his dreams. His performance of "The Impossible Dream" will have you wondering if you've ever heard the song before. It lands in the heart so deeply, so richly that we are almost stunned by its summons to be better, to do better.
Other cast members contribute their skills to the cause as well. Carlos Lopez as Sancho, Cervantes/Quixote's companion, injects humor into the proceedings. Michelle Dawson as Aldonza/Dulcinea was added to the show in its first week of previews because the actor playing that role had to leave because of family illness. She is a strong presence with a lovely voice, and given another few days in the presence of this company she will be even stronger.
Bennet has also woven into the staging the passion of flamenco dancers Jose Luis "El Nino" Uz and Amelia Moore. Expert guitarists Joaquin Gallegos and Miguel Mijia add perfect accompaniment to the flamenco numbers as well as to the music throughout the show.
Kara Mikula, Patrick Connaghan and Michael Sharon also stand out while bringing us well-defined characters. But this is an ensemble show in which all are charged with contributing their best, and the result is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Set and costume design are fine and steer clear of being overproduced, which sometimes happens at ATC.
Music director Tim Symons has overseen the instruments and voices well and sound designer Abe Jacob brings numerous credits for designing musicals, which have challenges not found in straight plays, and his work here is spot on.
(Perhaps I should add that it is so refreshing to be able to understand the lyrics of songs, something not always possible at the cavernous Centennial Hall, where Broadway in Tucson presents its road shows of fine musicals.)
So, are we so jaded and cynical that we mock Cervantes' call to look around and see possibilities? Have we outgrown idealism? Have we forgotten to dream?
The greatest gift Cervantes delivers is a reminder that we can never expect to have a better world unless we first imagine it. What it looks like; what it feels like; what it's made of. He and Don Quixote remind us that this is especially true during tough and turbulent times. Perhaps that is the work of all poets and artists. They show us what we are and what we can be. And we can't be better unless we imagine better.
Thank you, ATC. Man of La Mancha is a gentle but firm smack to the forehead. Wake up and dream.