You really can’t go wrong with a well-produced production of a musical theater classic. And Off-Broadstreet Theater’s production of “Man of La Mancha” is just that: well-sung, solidly performed, and alternatively silly and affecting. It’s a great centerpiece for a spring evening out, even before you take the included piece of cake or pie into account.
A quick synopsis, just in case: Struggling soldier-actor-writer-tax collector Cervantes and his faithful manservant are thrown into prison by the Spanish Inquisition, clutching a trunk full of theatrical props. They have been charged with foreclosing on a monastery. Their fellow prisoners attack them and put them on mock trial with their possessions as collateral if they are found guilty. Cervantes, as a defense, tells the story of Don Quixote, the legendary knight who tilts at windmills, and the story slowly winds its way into the prisoners, as fiction overtakes reality and the stakes get higher and higher.
The show’s success rests on a trio of performances. First, there's Barry Abramowitz’s Cervantes, whose gleeful earnestness and booming voice add a subtlety and sense of grounding to a role that’s usually broadly essayed and overplayed. Then, there’s OBT artistic director Robert Thick, who, as Cervantes’ manservant and Quixote’s friend Sancho, is affable and goofy in his steadfast loyalty. And surprise surprise –– I’ve seen dozens of shows at OBT, and never before this production did I realize that Thick has a fantastic voice! The two make a fun pair, and their interactions are fun to watch.
The crown jewel of this production is Sarah Krauss’ Aldonza, the coarse barmaid transformed by Quixote’s chivalry into a more virtuous maiden. Krauss is a complete part of this world, and from the moment she sets foot onstage, her talent and focus act like a lightning rod. It becomes Aldonza’s show, and that’s a good thing; Quixote and Sancho are easy to ridicule and laugh at, and her faith transforms them into something more. Amidst this story within a story, Aldonza’s broad cynicism gives way to devout belief in the power of fantasy, and Krauss’ skill and utterly charming voice sell the complexity of her role with straightforward, sympathetic charm.
“Man of La Mancha” is at its best when it walks that fine line between high stakes and silliness; it’s a perfect moment when, on the verge of losing everything, Sancho recruits two young female prisoners and coerces them into donning wire horseheads. For a second they’re bewildered, but then they just go with it, and we’re graced with two dancing, happy horses. It’s just on the edge of something you’d see in “Monty Python,” but it’s the soul of how this musical works –– while the concept is lofty and the layers a little complex, if you just say okay and go with it, there’s fun ahead.
Among all that fun, however, there’s the incredibly weighty concept of legacy, and the importance of storytelling against truth –– with the framing sequence of the Spanish Inquisition rearing its ugly head throughout the show, it’s impossible to forget that each and every one of the characters presented will soon be questioned, found wanting, and put to death.
And Don Quixote himself plays hopscotch with the line between idealism and madness, as the other characters ridicule and belittle his unwavering adherence to the values of his imagined knighthood. But there’s the startlingly affecting flipside to this quality, in that this vaguely silly story takes a place of great importance to the prisoners. And that’s the depth of “Man of La Mancha” –– just as Quixote inspires divinity in a barmaid through his hopeless romanticism, so too does Cervantes’ tale bleed into a place where hope is all but dead. After all, there’s two ways we can view stories: as lies and pieces of fiction that keep us from confronting the horrors of this world, or as inclinations that there are better places and people within each of us.
Of course, there’s also “The Impossible Dream,” “Man of La Mancha’s” famous ballad that’s been translated into dozens of languages and recorded by everyone from Liberace to Placido Domingo to the Carpenters. And that’s the point of the song, and the show –– dreams are impossible, but they’re still worth struggling to attain, even when, especially when, hope is gone. Productions often forget this crucial element –– not so here.
Man of La Mancha features great material, an admirable cast, and the ticket price includes dessert and coffee or tea. This production is well worth a trip to Off-Broadstreet Theater.
Man of La Manch, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Weekends through May 19. $29.50-$31.50 includes dessert. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com