Failed Quest

An outdoor amphitheater in a deserted part of a beach community, caressed by lapping breezes from the Gulf of Mexico on a warm summer night with nary a cloud in the sky: what better setting for Man of La Mancha, right? "Facts are the enemy of truth," cries knight-errant Don Quixote during his adventures. And the truth is, what Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals unfolds is one of the most uninspiring productions of an inspiring musical that I've ever seen.

Man of La Mancha, based on Cervantes' Don Quixote, is, of course, a musical within a play. In a dungeon awaiting trial by the Inquisition, Cervantes is hauled before a kangaroo court of fellow prisoners and accounts for himself and his Quixote manuscript by playing out his story. Donning makeup and costume, he becomes Quixote; his manservant becomes Sancho Panza; and the prisoners become other characters. And what a story it is: battles with windmills, inns mistaken as castles, a trollop transformed into a virgin ... delusions of grandeur all, as Quixote, in a state of mad grace, tries to add a bit of chivalry to the world.

What Galveston Island director Elliot Wasserman adds is karaoke. Though a minor player occasionally strums a guitar, for the most part the actors sing to recorded music. Any purity of spirit -- so crucial to this play -- that they might attain is thus instantly ruined. While the amphitheater architecture (or prevailing economics) doesn't seem able to accommodate an orchestra pit, there is space in the wings for a small group of musicians. At the very least, Wasserman should have supplied a piano for sorely needed intimacy.

Though in the play Quixote is supposed to have the magical ability to weave disparate occurrences into a colorful tapestry, that fails to come through in Galveston's episodic production -- which lacks any sense of continuity. Or pathos, upon which the entire second act hinges, for that matter. Or scenery: aside from some Spanish-looking walls and a small, drawbridge-like staircase, the stage is bare. The choreography, when there is any, consists of twirls and jumping jacks and flowing fabric for a Moorish gypsy dance and breast grabs, crotch-licks and sex positions when Quixote's maiden is abducted. The fight scenes are grapple-by-numbers; only the keen costumes work.

Man of La Mancha ultimately depends on its actors achieving elemental emotions. But in the preview performance I saw, none of the leads, and few of the supporting cast, evoke any reaction at all. Jay Stuart, as Quixote, is neither lofty nor touching. His love song, "Dulcinea," lacks romance; his credo, "The Impossible Dream," courage. He's a stick figure, not a fairy-tale hero. As Aldonza/Dulcinea, Bernice A. Wood doesn't burn with resentment or confusion or love. She simply snips and yells. Ladd Boris fares better as Sancho Panza, but isn't affectionate enough in "I Really Like Him," the character-defining account of why he puts up with Quixote. The only high points are Ann Sanders and Skip Harris from the supporting cast, who sing very sweetly as Quixote's concerned young niece and padre.

One of the great musicals, Man of La Mancha is full of showstoppers and titters, tingles and tears. But in Galveston Island's lifeless outdoor production the only time you'll be truly engaged is when you wish that the mosquitoes didn't outnumber the fireflies 100 to 1.

-- Peter Szatmary

Man of La Mancha runs through September 3 at The Outdoor Amphitheater, 13 Mile Road, off of Seawall Boulevard (FM 3005), Galveston, 1-800-54-SHOWS or 409-737-3440.


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