“Man of La Mancha” is audacious enough to suggest that there is beauty in delusion, that love has no prejudices and that no dream is impossible. This is why audiences have loved the “Don Quixote”-inspired musical since it opened on Broadway 54 years ago. The omnipresence of a stirring ballad (“The Impossible Dream”) has a little something to do with it, too.
San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Man of La Mancha” directed by Scott Thompson takes full advantage of the sheer romanticism of Dale Wasserman’s story as well as the music and lyrics of Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, respectively, that enliven it. The cast, singing to the very back walls of the Horton Grand Theatre downtown that is SDMT’s home, is supported by an equally rousing orchestra conducted by Don Le Master.
Its classic status aside, “Man of La Mancha” is much more complex than it had to be: In 16th-century Spain, writer/tax collector Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are under arrest after foreclosing on a monastery. Not only do the ruthless inquisitors await, but Cervantes’ dungeon-mates have seized his possessions. To get them back, Cervantes convinces them to give him a mock trial. His defense is the story he proceeds to tell them. So begins the play-within-the play, the tale of an old man, Alonso Quijano, who to the discomfiture of his family becomes Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight errant who lives for chivalry, justice and love.
The adventures of this knight (Robert J. Townsend) and his squire, Sancho Panza (Jeffrey Landman), quickly crystallize around Quixote’s spellbound love for a wench of ill repute, Aldonza (Heidi Meyer). His quest for her heart is periodically interrupted by narrative returns to the dungeon, where the solemn Cervantes enjoys a literally captive audience.
Having to portray Cervantes, the “mad” old man and the Quixote character is a quest in itself, one that Townsend meets with the presence and rich baritone for which San Diego audiences have embraced him many times. His most impressive feat may be not oversinging the oft-oversung “The Impossible Dream.” When Townsend is in the old man persona, too, he’s genuinely credible as what a cleric calls him “either the wisest madman or the maddest wise man in the world.”
The only figure in this show who truly changes is the fiery and broken Aldonza, whose contempt for the men who want to use her (“It’s All the Same’) is ultimately transformed into a reciprocal love for the knight who always saw purity and goodness in her, his “Dulcinea.” Meyer never compromises the character’s keen sense of survival.
Not to be overlooked is the sometimes hapless humor of “Man of La Mancha,” not only via the quipping sidekick Sancho, but in visual gags or clever tunes including “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and Sancho’s “I Really Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.” This is, lest we forget, a tale in which a noble knight goes after a windmill and emerges with broken sword, but unbowed.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/1/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.