Musical theater is usually accepted as a charade for our amusement—to borrow the language of the play at hand. But it also can be—to borrow a semi-wilting, social-science phrase—a “story we tell ourselves about ourselves.” In considering Man of La Mancha, MCT’s latest offering, we can look at it both ways.
Man of La Mancha, based on Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s novel Don Quixote, premiered in 1965, five years after the opening of Camelot. Just as the satire in Cervantes’ book depended on his 15th-century readers’ familiarity with well-thumbed books on chivalry, so the modern musical version of his tale plays off our acquaintance with shows such as Camelot, which are firmly within the tried-and-true tradition of romantic musical comedy.
Camelot is based on T.H. White’s modern reworking of the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, The Once and Future King (which itself was based on Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur). The plot in that musical moves King Arthur along an earnest path from idealism to disillusionment to resignation in a fairly straightforward storybook fashion. In contrast, the wild-eyed Don Quixote who sallies forth into the world to right all wrongs in Man of La Mancha, is—except for a brief spell of flat-line, amnesiac normalcy—at once a gallant knight and an aging fool. While this Broadway musical version of Cervantes’ send-up of knights and their noble quests inevitably restores romance as an ideal, we can see that the satire Cervantes intended is not completely lacking.
True, by the play’s end, Aldonza cum Dulcinea is transformed by the force of the Quixotic dream—has she become a metaphor for justice and right, the old chivalry thing, or is she simply redeemed as a human being?—and Cervantes in prison is grappling with harsh reality as he climbs the stairs to meet his inquisitors. But insofar as we, the audience, can leave the theater knowing that Don Quixote himself has learned no lessons, succumbed to no reality check, then Man of La Mancha retains the droll ambiguity of Cervantes’ work.
Man of La Mancha is only one year younger than The Fiddler on the Roof and Hello Dolly, but its several-tiered, play-within-a-play, dang-near-hermeneutical construction makes it seem to belong, on the one hand, to another, newer generation (Sondheim) and, on the other, to some tradition that predates Broadway musicals altogether (Shakespeare).
The play begins with the writer Cervantes and his assistant entering prison. They have been sentenced for attempting to collect taxes from the Church. (Biographical material on Cervantes tells us that he was, in fact, imprisoned for “a shortage in his accounts due to the dishonesty of an associate,” and that the term was for only one year.) The inmates decide to put the newcomers on “trial” for their possessions. Cervantes deflects them by proposing a charade for their amusement. Pulling props out of a trunk, he transforms himself into the valorous, daft Don Quixote, his assistant becomes the loyal sidekick Sancho Panza, two prisoners who don horse’s heads become their trusty, decrepit steeds, and the story begins.
The audience is asked to conspire with the actors to pull it all off—to accept a lunatic prisoner as a priest, or to imagine the windmill-dragon offstage. What’s more—the audience somehow needs to see what Don Quixote sees and, at the same time, see how he appears to others—bearing in mind that those “others” have been served up by Cervantes, Don Quixote’s own creator. The result is something more sophisticated than most name-that-song musical entertainments, though Mitch Leigh’s score is as beautiful and singable as any (how many crooners have attempted “The Impossible Dream”?).
In this MCT staging, which Jim Caron directs, Don Collins and Caron play the parts of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, respectively. Their collaboration is a reprisal of a 1970 team performance, and the past 30 years surely have given added meaning to these actors’ interpretations. It seems that a certain passage of time (with the requisite questing and windmill-jousting that any life in the theater involves) should almost be a requirement for these roles. And if these actors are feeling any nostalgia for their younger selves, that seems an appropriate element, too, for a play about yearning.
Finally, the fact that this is a community theater production adds another dimension to this particular play. It is true that some of the actors here are professionals in some capacity—Nancy Caron brings her well-established vocal skills to the role of Aldonza-Dulcinea, ands Margaret Johnson shares veteran status with Collins and Caron. But it is both aptly poignant and aesthetically pleasing to think of nonprofessional actors, regular townspeople like you and me, conscripted into a play about secret visions, wild longings, and delusionary dreams—just as the play’s Cervantes recruits from the prisoners for his charade.
MCT presents Man of La Mancha April 27-29 and May 3-6 at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. Showtimes and ticket prices vary. Cconsult “8 Days a Week” or call 728-PLAY.