Man of La Mancha, the classic musical by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, is currently running at Flat Rock Playhouse. In the interest of disclosure, let me say that I have loved this show for a long time. Ever since my pop-culture introduction when Dr. Samuel Beckett quantum leapt into the understudy for the title role, I’ve been rather enamored with its message of perpetual hope and optimism in the face of constant derision and reality. The play is, of course, based upon the novel Don Quixote, by 16th century Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes Saavedra. The novel follows the misadventures of a man, Alonso Quixana, who has rather lost his faculties and believes himself to be a knight errant, “either the wisest madman or the maddest wise man in the world,” and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, a clown of sorts who, in the tradition of most literary clowns, knows and sees the truth.
The play cleverly frames his story as the “defense” of Cervantes, who has been thrown into prison awaiting trial by the Spanish inquisition. The other prisoners demand that he be tried before them first, and his story of Quixote serves as his justification for his values and actions, while the prisoners take on all the secondary roles of the story. Clearly a bit of suspension of disbelief is required to subscribe to this course of action, but no more than is necessary to accept that the characters are singing and performing choreography.
The titular role is expertly portrayed by David Lutken, who could scarcely look better for the role and who brings the unshakeable earnestness that makes the audience, and eventually other characters, want to believe in his impossible dream (sorry, you knew it was coming). I do wish Lutken’s deep and powerful speaking voice had translated into the broad baritone I’m accustomed to hearing in the role, in the vein of Richard Kiley or Brian Stokes Mitchell. Lutken’s singing voice is certainly pleasant but I think there is a call for more bravado and drama. Patrick John Moran provides a great deal of comedy as Sancho; his vocal comedy and line delivery outshine some of the slightly forced physical bits. Ariela Morganstern, as the kitchen maid Aldonza whom Quixote takes as his lady fair, Dulcinea, graces us with some lovely singing and gritty vulnerability. Some of the singing could have benefited from more of a warm up when I saw the play Thursday evening, particularly a few of Morganstern’s transitions between head and chest voice; I would have liked to have heard the singers indulge a bit more in some of the early songs. There is a danger with this show of venturing into the land of the maudlin, and perhaps some of the songs were paced specifically to avoid such a fate, but they felt a bit that the actors were holding back from the emotion and narrative. Again, this may have been a warming-up sort of issue, as the vocals and investment definitely improved as the evening went on. In addition to the primary characters, some fine acting came from some of the smaller parts, most notably the nuanced, funny and endearing performance of Eric Scott Anthony as the Padre, whose song “I’m Only Thinking of Him” with Antonia (Wendy Hayes) and The Housekeeper (Amy Elizabeth Jones) was an unexpected high point.
A strong orchestra, impressively including a number of Hendersonville High School band members, backed the ensemble, literally and figuratively, as they were placed on stage, behind a scrim in back of the set. I rather enjoyed this effect and the chance to see the somewhat unsung but essential part of any musical perform when they were lit during the overture and entr’acte. (Speaking of the overture and entr’acte, to the teenage girls who sat behind me: those are also part of the show. As is the rest of the show. Either stop talking, or rush home and try to catch the end of The Hills.)
At the risk of employing a somewhat cliché sentiment, Man of La Mancha comes as a welcome antidote to society’s pervasive cynicism. It runs at Flat Rock through June 28: Wednesday to Saturday at 8:15, with 2:15 matinee performances Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.