Man of La Mancha Rides Again at Houston's Queensbury Theatre

The setup:
When Mitch Leigh, Dale Wasserman and Joe Darian's musical adaptation of Cervantes's classic novel Don Quixote opened at the temporary ANTA Washington Square Theatre off-Broadway, Man of La Mancha (1965) set the Great White Way afire. Here was a dark, adult, socially conscious yet uplifting show.

Unknown composer Leigh's score and unknown writer Darian's lyrics were pure Broadway with their belting anthems, soulful ballads, comedy numbers and a quite discomforting rape scene, all set to lilting pseudo-Spanish rhythm. Book writer Wasserman (whose previous Broadway work was the successful One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) set the tale inside a subterranean prison where Cervantes awaits the Inquisition. The prostitutes, thieves and assorted criminals look upon this “poet” as fair game and conduct a mock trial of their own. For his defense, Cervantes acts out his unfinished manuscript, using the prisoners as players in this play-within-the-play.

Intermissionless, the musical catches us with the same fervor as Cervantes's story of woebegone and deluded Quixote inspires these desperate people without a future. Imagination, fantasy and the unbearable sordidness of life collide and mingle. But ultimately, art triumphs. Threaded throughout are ravishing songs, and one great big monster hit, the inspirational “The Impossible Dream,” a perennial best-seller ever since the show's premiere.

The execution:
Queensbury Theatre, a.k.a. the old Country Playhouse, in a spectacular but intimate brand-new venue (you can still smell the paint), inaugurates its metal-glass-and-wood home with a quite rousing production of this classic show. The casting, minus three, skews toward the young side; most are recent musical theater graduates, which makes this first production in the house edge into college theater, but the youngsters give it their all. They are so impressive in drawing us into Cervantes's world that somewhere in the middle of the first hour, you forget about their fresh faces.

Solidly anchored by mega-voiced and older vet Alex Stutler as Cervantes/Quixote, Mancha rolls smoothly through the knight's adventures, adroitly directed by Andrew Ruthven. As he readies himself for the thieves' court, Stutler, in our full view, swipes on makeup to hollow his cheeks and whiten his beard and eyebrows. A dented breastplate, one old rusty greave for his leg, and a wizened glare that looks far into the future, and, there he is, Cervantes's hero in the flesh. Stutler's magnificent baritone rings out through “Dream” and “Golden Helmet of Mambrino,” then softens lovingly for the love ballad “Dulcinea.” Throughout, he commands the stage. His penultimate scene, on Quixote's deathbed after he's ruthlessly forced to confront his illusions, is subtly played and strikes at the heart.

His Dulcinea is Katie Fridsma, a recent Texas transplant, as her bio states, and we'd like to hear more from her in the future. She makes a most convincing slut, impressively spitting out the caustic “It's All the Same” as she's pawed over by the horny tavern men (Cameron William Davis, Kelly Harkins, Garrett Line and Gareth West) or plaintively crooning “What Does He Want of Me,” suspicious of the addled old geezer who's smitten by her nonexistent virtue.

Quixote's loyal servant Sancho Panza is warmly portrayed by Ryan Smith, always surprised by his master's antics but ready to stand by him when real danger threatens. When a doubting Dulcinea asks him why he stays with such a buffoon, Panza confesses shyly in the song, “I Really Like Him.” We like him, too. Another good voice belongs to Daniel Rosales, as the Padre, whose clean, refreshing tenor wraps itself around Leigh and Darian's paean to idealists, “To Each His Dulcinea.” Joe C. White adds comic exasperation to the “Barber's Song,” forced to relinquish his shaving basin, which Quixote believes is an enchanted helmet; while Main Street and Country Playhouse pro James Salners provides theatrical heft and age-appropriateness to the leader of the underground criminal world.

Although the show has a pre-recorded orchestral track, which sounds rich and full in Queensbury's new hall, it's not the ideal way to showcase a musical. Live beats canned any day. The singers are competent enough to sync with it without any problems, but there's still a whiff of the mechanical about the process. If the singers want to hold a note a bit longer, or stretch out a phrase for dramatic effect, forget it. They're at the mercy of an unrelenting CD player, not a sympathetic, watchful conductor.

Adam Thorton's stony dungeon set, all bright ocher, is much too peppy for the dank, foul prison, as is the overly bland lighting from Adam Richardson. As this is Queensbury's inaugural production, some leeway is allowed to work out the backstage technical kinks and get these balances correct.

The verdict:
If you've never seen Man of La Mancha, which is difficult to miss since it's been a mainstay on regional stages for decades and has been revived on Broadway at least three times since its premiere, by all means go and experience Stutler's boom as Cervantes's knight errant. Hearing “The Impossible Dream” echo through the pristine house is worth the journey outside the Loop. Gawking at and admiring Queensbury's luxurious theater are well worth it, too. Welcome back.

Man of La Mancha. Through August 23. Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at queensburytheatre.org or call 713-467-4497. $28-$48.

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