Serious times call for seriously entertaining entertainment, and it is in that spirit that the Fine Arts Center Repertory Theatre Company presents Man of La Mancha, a musical based on the The Adventures of Don Quixote by Cervantes.
The play is a bittersweet comedy, most of which takes the form of a play within a play, in which Cervantes, imprisoned during the inquisition and awaiting his fate, stages an allegorical drama for his fellow inmates. This sub-play is both a gift from the doomed writer -- a diversion for those who could very much use one -- and a plea of innocence (he's given a mock trial by his peers in which he must defend the anarchy of imagination).
The plot is a chuckler: A man gets stuck in a fantasy of the olden days and fancies himself a chivalrous knight who sets off to save people who don't need saving (or do they?) such as Aldonza/Dulcinea, the hooker with a heart of gold (performed with a passion by Shannon French). But then again, one can't help thinking that this deluded sap isn't much different from, say, a stalker, but we don't find that sort of thing funny anymore. Or do we? In any case, it's fun to believe in a bumbling hero who dares to dream "The Impossible Dream."
There are some really strong performances here, most notably the comic sidekick, Sancho Panza, played by Michael Augenstein who obviously enjoyed the role. There's something especially wonderful about the image of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote galloping off together on bent wire horses, Quixote because he believes in himself and Sancho because he doesn't mind the nonsensical details and has the heart to go along.
Most disappointing was the quality of the sound, which added up to much less than the sum of its parts and has been an ongoing problem at the Fine Arts Center's theater. It might have resonated as well in a carpeted basement. The orchestra is fantastic and the cast includes some wonderful singing voices including French, Brenan Searain as the Padre and of course Robert Tiffany who's really grand in the role of Don Quixote. But it just doesn't make sense to stage a musical and skimp on the sound design.
Regardless, you can go along for the scenery -- literally. The productive Nancy Hankin put together another fabulous set for Man of La Mancha -- a campy Disneyland Dark-Ages scenario meets, well, the Inquisition. A mammoth ascending and descending staircase accentuates the golden rule of mad wandering: location, location, location.
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