It doesn’t take a seer to figure out why “Man of La Mancha” is one of the most successful Broadway musicals. The work, which premiered at Goodpseed Opera House, is sentimental, romantic, passionate and idealistic. By the time it closed in 1965, it had played 2,328 performances, becoming, at that time, the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history.
Audiences have emerged from performances ennobled and teary-eyed, as they do at Westport Playhouse’s excellent revival. Directed with fiery exactitude by Mark Lamos and featuring a sensational performance by Gisela Adisa as Aldonza/Dulcinea, the production is faithful to the story’s plot and characters, no small feat when you consider that such familiar material can easily turn stale.
That it maintains its hold is due to its universality. After all, it’s a 20th-century American adaptation of a 17th-century Spanish novel that deals with the delusions of Don Quixote who believes he’s a medieval knight. Its thematic desire to “right the unrightable wrong,” though seemingly an “impossible dream” these gloomy days, appeals to what’s optimistically called “our better natures.”
Take, for example, its attitude towards women. While the plot’s ensemble of prisoners treats women as objects to be seduced, Don Quixote insists on following the Middle Ages concept of courtly love. Women are seen as inspirational moral and spiritual beings, to be adored not denigrated.
The musical is structured as a play within a play. It begins with author Cervantes and his faithful servant (later Sancho Panza) thrown into prison by the dreaded Inquisition. Their fellow inmates are a rough bunch to be sure. To save themselves from violence, Cervantes and servant induce the inmates to help act out the picaresque tales of ”Don Quixote,” wherein our hero tilts at windmills, imagines he’s a knight and falls for a barmaid named Aldonza, whom he dubs the more lyrical Dulcinea (here pronounced “Doolcinea” instead of the usual “Dullcinea”).
Dale Wasserman’s concise libretto, adapted from his TV version, has apt lyrics by Joe Darion and memorable music by Mitch Leigh. The most famous number is, of course, “The Impossible Dream,” the show’s anthem. Add the insistent title song, the hypocritical “We’re Only Thinking of Him,” the affectionate “I Really Like Him” and the ostensibly playful “Little Bird.”
Lamos emphasizes the tortuous cruelty undergirding characters that swing from avaricious to generous, dangerous to kind. He also laces the high drama with great tenderness, even though, at times, there’s an air of busyness for its own sake, not to mention a plethora of crotch-grabbing. Marcos Santana’s choreography is vigorous, although the fight scenes (credited to Michael Rossmy) lack a feeling of spontaneity.
Philip Hernandez is a stalwart, graceful Cervantes/Quixote with a booming voice. He may not be as mad as the Quixote character’s supposed to be, but his interpretation adds empathy. Tony Manna is an amusing Sancho Panza, David Sattler an imposing Governor, while Carlos Encinias’ conflicted Padre is superb, especially his plangent singing of “To Each His Dulcinea.”
Gisela Adisa fits the script’s definition of Aldonza as “a savage, dark alley cat.” Looking and acting as if she could spit nails, Adisa avoids playing Aldonza as a harlot with a heart of gold. Rather, she obviously gets off on the prisoners’ brutality though yearning for a modicum of respect.
As for those prisoners, they’re believable ruffians that flavor the evening, as do Wilson Chin’s chilly scenic design and Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s dingy costumes. Music director Andrew David Sotomayor’s orchestra lends expert support.
The production has the good sense to not comment on the action. Playing it straight, trusting the material, pays off.