'Man of La Mancha'

"Man of La Mancha" at Randall Theatre Company of Medford is lush, energetic and colorful — and also quite moving.

The production is an ambitious undertaking. The award-winning Broadway musical, with book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, has multiple characters, numerous settings and powerful music. Randall's theater space in a converted warehouse is, shall we say, cozy. Staging "Man of La Mancha" is a sort of "Impossible Dream" all on its own.

"Man of La Mancha" is based on Miguel de Cervantes' classic 17th-century novel about the sanity of being insane. Don Alonzo de Quijana, an aging upper-middle-class squire, is so filled by the ideals of long-ago tales from the age of chivalry that he imagines himself as the "knight errant" Don Quixote, an impossibly selfless and righteous avenger of the helpless and downtrodden — sort of a 17th-century version of Superman or Batman.

But idealized tales of derring-do are just that — stories that have little relation to the harsh facts of daily life. An imagined superhero quickly comes up against villains who don't appreciate the power of the persona.

No small measure of the success of the Randall Theatre production is due to first-time director Toni Holley's casting of the three leads. Don Matthews brings an incandescent intensity to Cervantes/Don Quixote. Matthews (the host for the morning classical music program on Jefferson Public Radio) has a classically trained voice for the soaring music and his powerful performance embodies Don Quixote's unwavering illusions.

Holley cast Pam Ward as Aldonza/Dulcinea. Most productions of "Man of La Mancha" have a 20-something, not yet sufficiently hard-bitten Aldonza. Ward brings a maturity — and a deep sense of despair — to the character, which gives more impact to her transformation from bewilderment to anger to belief.

In contrast, Jon Oles' relentlessly optimistic Sancho is positively delicious. Oles, too, has a trained voice and he joyfully conveys Sancho's constant confusion and delight with the sweetly daffy old man. When Oles sings "I Like Him," a tune vaguely out of step with the other music in the show, we can believe that, yes, he really does.

Holley has utilized every inch of Randall's postage-stamp-size stage to create a multilevel dungeon that morphs into the inn or the battlefield of the play-within-a-play told by Cervantes to his fellow prisoners as they await judgment by the Inquisition.

While other cast members may not have the vocal or acting skills of the leads, they do a credible supporting job. Deborah Downward's choreography keeps the crowd scenes briskly moving around.

Unfortunately, Music Director Brian Alex Thorn had a thankless task of using a pre-recorded score. Missed cues, volume problems and variable voices created a less-than-optimum effect on opening night. The big numbers, such as "Impossible Dream" and "What Does He Want of Me," came off well. Other songs, not so much.

"Man of La Mancha's" book was written by Dale Wasserman, himself more than a bit quirky. Wasserman already had written the successful play "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," based on the novel by Oregonian Ken Kesey. In 1965, Wasserman took his own 1959 television drama based on "Don Quixote" and turned it into musical theater.

The delightful conceit of "Man of La Mancha" is that while the world around Don Quixote may be ugly, cruel and selfish, the anachronistic chivalrous knight continues to pursue truth, justice and love. Don Quixote sees beauty and nobility in everything because that is what he wishes to see. As Don Quixote says, "I wish to add some measure of grace to the world."

Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be a bit like that?

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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