Man of la Mancha: TUTS Scores a Fresh, Inspired Take on a Classic Hero's Tale

Check out our interview with TUTS Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin and choreographer Michelle Gaudette.

The set-up: The eponymous hero of this musical classic, Man of la Mancha, which played on Broadway for almost six years (winning Tony awards for Best Musical, Composer and Lyricist, Actor, Director, and Set Design), is not the misguided knight errant Don Quixote, battler of windmills and lost causes, but his creator Miguel de Cervantes.

Author Dale Wasserman, who had previously adapted the Spaniard's thick masterpiece for a TV play, puts Cervantes in prison awaiting the judgment of the Inquisition. As a tax collector, among other professions -- writer, soldier, poet, dreamer -- he has incurred the royal wrath by foreclosing on a church. A gigantic staircase/drawbridge is lowered into the dark common area of the ghastly prison, and Cervantes walks down, down into the shadowy holding cell where murderers, thieves, and the decrepit wait without hope to be called to face the terrors of the Inquisition. The refuse of the prison divvy up his meager goods, but not before holding their own mock trial. In defense and to protect his unfinished manuscript from being burned, Cervantes "acts out" the adventures of Don Quixote and uses the other prisoners as characters in the musical within the musical.

This device -- used on Broadway at the same time by Peter Weiss/Peter Brook's highly theatrical Marat/Sade, in which the nefarious Marquis de Sade uses the inmates of the asylum where he's imprisoned to act out the life of French revolutionary Marat -- is immensely effective as it draws us right into the tale. This musical starts on a high dramatic note indeed.

The execution: In musical theater history, Man of La Mancha is known as a "one of." Never again were any of its creators to be so creative. All their subsequent musicals were bombs (Sarava; Chu-Chem; Home, Sweet, Homer; Ilya Darling). But the stars aligned for this one. It's a unique show; theater in the raw, stirring and theatrical.

Except for breaking up the show into two acts, which lessens its cumulative impact, Theatre Under the Stars' production is faithful to the original without turning the show into a waxworks. Mitch Leigh's music is as fresh as ever with its flamenco-inspired rhythms and bolero accents: its pop goes to Spain. But everything's of a piece, with superlative lyrics by Joe Darion to match Leigh's evocative tunes. Any show that boasts the soaring "The Quest" (The Impossible Dream), the lilting "To Each His Dulcinea," the pomp of "The Golden Helmet of Mambrino," the vaudeville "I Really Like Him," and the gritty "Aldonza," has a lively musical vocabulary.

As Cervantes/Quixote, Paul Schoeffler gives the dreamer a crisp, staccato delivery that takes a bit to get used to, but his baritone has a gleaming tint that cuts right into the heart of his showstopping power ballad. He makes us see the batty old knight of the woeful countenance without resorting to that character's patented goatee and great swathe of a mustache. To transform into the Don, he corkscrews his hair with his fingers and applies a bit of greasepaint to his cheeks, and there he is, now stooped and grizzled, ready to tilt at windmills and see silk where there are only rags.

His trusty sidekick Sancho Panza, perhaps the most famous sidekick in literature, is a worthy Borscht-belter under Josh Lamon's wily interpretation, turning him into Nathan Lane-lite, but that's about the only way to play this endearing second banana. As the whore Aldonza, who Quixote fantasizes as chaste and pure, Michelle DeJean is appropriately slutty and hard-shelled until she cracks under Quixote's persistently chivalrous gaze. DeJean possesses a sturdy Broadway presence, with voice to match. She spits out her unflinching story of her life, "Aldonza," with pain to spare.

The supporting roles of Innkeeper, Padre (who gets to sing the haunting "To Each His Dulcinea"), and cynical Dr. Carrasco, are ably handled by Tom Alan Robbins, Laurent Giroux, and Bruce Winant, showbiz veterans all; while the "Muleteer" gypsy boys bump-and-grind appropriately to Michelle Gaudette's expressionistic choreography. Director Bruce Lumpkin, TUTS' artistic director, steers the show with an unobtrusive hand, letting it play out on its own terms.

The verdict: If you like your musical heroes "to run where the brave dare not go...to right the unrightable wrong," you can't do better than Man of La Mancha. This is the fourth time TUTS has presented this classic, and its message of hope among the hopeless never dates. This current production exudes freshness, along with inspiration. Just to hear that oversung old chestnut, "The Quest," in its rightful place in the show where it originated, is chilling all over again.

This Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 1965 dreams the impossible dream through March 10 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. $24-$119.

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