Some days it’s easier to roll up the carpet, wipe the twinkle from your eye, and put any hope you may have out to the curb. There will always be an abundance of opportunities to take a turn to the cynical, election cycle or not. This year, however, the better bet is not to brush up on your Thomas More and Utopia, but to take in a little Cervantes: Lakewood Theatre Company has brought back the 1964 musical Man of La Mancha, and is making the case for dreamers everywhere.
A little background hints at why this half-century-old Broadway show remains so familiar and deeply loved. The tale traces all the way back to 1605, when Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, the inspiration for Man of La Mancha, was published.
Miguel de Cervantes was in a hustle to make a buck near the end of his life: it had been hard and cruel, with one obstacle after another; never did any fair winds of fortune blow his way. He was a 16th century jack-of-all-trades who failed most of his life at being a poet, playwright, soldier, assistant to a cardinal, and tax collector. Like many authors, he was more celebrated after his death than while he was alive. He was imprisoned by pirates in Algiers, and in his darkest of hours he was a victim of the Inquisition: somewhere in his brilliant veins coursed some Jewish blood. He had everything to win, as he had nothing left to lose, when he began writing about Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza.
Here begins the first of many layers that make up the first novel of the Western world. Almost two hundred years later Voltaire would write Candide on a similar premise: pull your head out of the stars, stop stopping to smell the roses, don’t let your heart cling to a perfect human illusion, forget your quest. The brilliance begins with the fact that Cervantes was writing to dispel the popular obsession with tales of chivalry, and in this exercise did not give up on himself, could not unpack the myths around his character, and ended up, despite the odds and a normal ego, caring for the ingenious Don Quixote. After the publication of the first edition, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda wrote a sequel, which Cervantes refers to and makes fun of in his authentic second book. This is the next layer in the Don Quixote legend: so endearing was the hero, that another author attempted to finish his tale before Cervantes. Hundreds of years and artists later, Don Quixote still hits a chord. Thanks to Picasso and Doré’s prints, we have striking in our own imaginations the image of the rail-thin figure, almost toppled by his conquistador helmet, riding upon a ribbed horse through the desolate plains. When we leaf through our mental thesaurus and pull out “quixotic,” it’s meant to say an unlikely, foolish, and even mad chosen journey.
In Dale Wasserman, who wrote the book for Man of La Mancha, Cervantes found a likely inheritor. Washerman was orphaned when he was 10 years old, and rather than shuffle around to various aunts or uncles, took to riding the rails in the 1920s. He worked different trades, until he ended up doing some production crew work at a theater in California. He climbed his way up the drama ladder, and, being a little surly like his inspiration Cervantes, grew tired of the writing he was directing and decided to write the material himself. The first of Wasserman’s eternal positive egotists appeared as a television play called I, Don Quixote.
A few years later, Mitch Leigh was called in to write the score and W.H. Auden came on board as lyricist. Auden and Wasserman had a falling-out, because Wasserman wanted his Don Quixote to take up his quest once again at the end of the musical. Joe Darion replaced Auden, and wrote the libretto we’ve come to know. The misanthrope and chanteur Jacques Brel was so enchanted by Man of La Mancha that he translated the musical into French and released a wildly popular and now rare cover album. The tradition of pessimists embracing Don Quixote, just as his creator did, continues. Brel’s version of Little Bird (Sans Amour) has little to do with the sweet courtier-type phrases of the original, and it’s a delightful sparkling tune in the style of Georges Brassens, the acoustic bard who refuses all love on the grounds that it’s an amateur game ending in heartbreak. Little Bird is one of the most successful numbers in Brel’s recording. It’s a clever mix of referencing the troubadour tradition, which Quixote adored, and more contemporary popular folk music like the Weavers or early Simon and Garfunkel. The song is performed as Aldonza, Quixote’s Beatrice, is being stalked by the rough characters who frequent the inn she works in.
The musical has inspired a few haunting travesties, such as the endless post-crooner-era covers of The Impossible Dream by the likes of Jim Nabors, and of course, the nightmare film version starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren. Like the original Cervantes text, the popularity of Man of La Mancha had everyone giving it a go. Nineteen-sixty-four might seem to have been a time out of place to adapt Don Quixote into a Tony award-winning piece, but the ferment of the younger set was well in motion. Wasserman’s book suggests that maybe the older generation should walk a few miles in some newer shoes and see what kind of joy can come out of being unconventional.
It may be, also, that in the last few years we’ve needed a revival of Man of La Mancha. Lakewood’s production is not a nostalgic fawn, but a spirited and faithful staging.
The Gothic beams of this production’s set radiate and spiral out of control, as if a prison architect had a thing for Gaudí. It’s claustrophobic, dark, dank, except for a few bright orange fires that do little to illuminate, but rather remind us of how close to hell we are. More like Cervantes’ worst of times, the Dante-esque shades sit pale and hunched in their sorrow. Malia Tippets sings the opening number with her soulful vocal range and puts us right in with the common people who are suffering in the bowels of an inquisitor’s prison.
Under Greg Tamblyn’s direction, and with musical director Alan D. Lytle, the forceful cast belts out tight harmonies with a live band offstage. The troupe’s version of Little Bird is a sweet and menacing serenade. While the lilting melody builds, the chorus of men zeroes in on Aldonza like a pack of wolves.
Pam Mahon’s Aldonza has a glittering Broadway vibrato, and she moves as a sultry Carmen, rolling her hips, throwing daggers from her eyes, spitting tacks. Leif Norby’s Cervantes descends shorn and clean-shaven with a lithe and young Sancho Panza (Joey Côté) in tow. So this biography within a play within a musical of a book begins. Norby’s transformation into Quixote seems like a gentle mirage against the earthy and volatile Adonza. Norby’s performance of The Impossible Dream brought the number back to its Bolero roots and his crescendo and sustain in the last bars was voluminous, thrilling and filled the theater with a fresh excitement, not for this famous moment in Man of La Mancha, but for the realization that he owns his role as Quixote.
Corey Brunish, as the grand tall obelisk of the duke and Dr. Carrasco, makes the figure of the villains with malevolent dignity. While the chorus of men are caught up in the cesspool of their environment, he is a lord of the flies on principle alone. His dominance over Quixote makes the knight of the woeful countenance ethereal, and his late-blooming valor genuine.
Joey Côté’s Sancho is wide-eyed and bushy tailed, not a potbellied dimwit. He has his moments of levity when he sees the realities that his master conjures into castles in the air. This Sancho is a clean blank slate, a stand-in for us. He and we, the audience with him, wish to share in the knight’s fantastic visions; all we can do is become squires in Quixote’s service, yet it becomes enough to cheer from the sidelines. Côté’s Sancho gives this production a poignancy and guides us to cling to optimism, while protecting us from the guilt we could share in once Dulcinea is attacked by the men at the inn. Côté gives a thoughtful and adorable performance of I Like Him: knocking his knees in short pants, hiding his hands and looking up and away, he projects a personification of innocence. Norby’s Quixote and Côté’s Sancho roll out the jokes, and director Tamblyn step by step builds us up through clever props and glimpses into the silly knight’s imagination.
Or is he a silly knight? This man of La Mancha is a fearless dreamer, and while his virtue creates a few casualties, he sparks warmth in a time of seeming hopelessness.
Man of La Mancha continues through June 12 at Lakewood Theatre Company in Lake Oswego. Ticket and schedule information here.