(December 6, 2002)

A Reachable Star

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Take care as you walk along 45th Street west of Ninth Avenue these days. There's infectious dreaming going on over there. "Man of La Mancha" opened last night at the Martin Beck Theatre.

Under Jonathan Kent's complete and clever restaging - employing the tender baritone of Brian Stokes Mitchell and the design wizardry of Paul Brown (sets and costumes), Paul Gallo (lighting) and Tony Meola (sound) - the story of Don Quixote, knight errant of La Mancha, bursts forth, daring you not to join forces with the demented dreamer.

Kent, new to the musical form, relies on strong actors: Mitchell, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza and Ernie Sabella as Sancho Panza. They do not disappoint.

In "Man of La Mancha," the Tony-winning best musical of 1965, Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music), and Joe Darion (lyrics) spin a play within a play against the backdrop of the Inquisition. Not exactly happy stuff, but they manage to convey the humor of Miguel de Cervantes along with a message. And if Hitler can be a hit on Broadway, who's to keep inquisitors at bay?

Poet Don Miguel de Cervantes is in prison, summoned by the Inquisition. But before that court date, he'll face a jury of his jailed peers - who accuse him of being "an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man."

After pleading guilty, he pleads to be allowed to explain, his way. He performs a charade about a man who, though mad, sees things as they should be and not as they are: Don Quixote de La Mancha. The members of his mock court then become co-conspirators in the play.

Mitchell - the Tony-winner for "Kiss Me, Kate" (incidentally on the same stage) - plays the Don with full dynamic range. His voice is operatic, booming and yet wistful at times.

He speak-sings the opening to "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)," the musical's theme, which became an anthem upon its introduction nearly four decades ago and then, overplayed and in the wrong hands, a cliché.

"To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/To run where the brave dare not go..."

Everyone in the audience knows what is coming at the end of the song. They know Quixote will reach for that unreachable star. And, almost in spite of themselves, they get caught up in it as Mitchell reaches his full voice and hammers that last line. And stops the show.

Mastrantonio's Aldonza is stubborn and brash. "Nobody touches my heart," she declares. While hers is not a voice to fill the house, she captures Aldonza's confusion - at this man who sees her as a virgin and who calls her by another name - and a healthy dose of vulnerability as the relentless Quixote wins her over.

Sabella, a born Broadway sidekick, is funny and broad as loyal servant Sancho Panza. His borscht- belt delivery plays well, as Sancho is playing not only to the audience, but to his loony knight.

Unfortunately, Sabella's singing voice lets him down. In "I Really Like Him" and "A Little Gossip," he finds it difficult to hold a note and, despite miking, can be difficult to hear. When singing in a group, he appears to mouth the words.

Choreographer Luis Perez's vision is part flamenco, part stage fight and part "Stomp!," that noisy show in which the floor, the walls and anything else you can bang becomes a musical instrument. It is a physical and demanding workout for the ensemble, who seem up to the task.

Perez's dancers inhabit Paul Brown's breathtaking set, a Mad Max world of rusting plates that form the sheer wall of a cylindrical pit. Entry is by a mammoth circular stair that can be split and pivoted at will. Periodically, tectonic shifts lift the top of the wall to reveal a sliver of life behind it, at times a mountain range, sunny sunflowers, rows of candles, starry sky. It is an ingenious device and mirrors the escape upon which Quixote's story rests. In that shiny sliver is the world as he would have it, not the world as it is.

The world of Quixote is chivalrous and gallant, where windmills become feckless giants that must be battled, where a kitchen slut, Aldonza, becomes his divine, virginal lady Dulcinea and his roly-poly friend, Sancho, is a trusted, loyal squire.

Also notable are Mark Jacoby as the Padre and Don Mayo as the Governor/Innkeeper. Both give comic turns but dig a little deeper.

There is a structural problem with "Man of La Mancha" - especially in a production that is presented in just over two hours without an intermission. The second act includes five reprises: "The Impossible Dream" is repeated twice, "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)" is repeated twice and "Dulcinea" is repeated once. Without a break, one finds oneself thinking, "OK, I've heard this before."

To be sure, the songs are memorable; the bouncy "Man of La Mancha" is downright contagious. But on the third hearing within two hours it tends to drag.

There will be those who sniff at the optimism of "Man of La Mancha," who will condemn it as sentimental and idealistic.

Considering the alternative, who wouldn't rather be an infectious dreamer?

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