MAN OF LA MANCHA by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion (Stratford). At the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to Oct 11. $50-$135, stu/srs $20-$67. 1-800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. Rating: NN
When you throw as much talent and dough at a show as they do at the Stratford Festval, a musical ought to hold up. The mid-60s Man Of La Mancha doesn't.
The story of Cervantes, who's been jailed for pissing off the Church, attempting to ingratiate himself with his fellow prisoners by evoking his famous character, Don Quixote, feels forced on almost every level.
The opening number's fine, but there's really only one wonderful song (The Impossible Dream), one sweet one (Dulcinea) and one drama-tic powerhouse number (Aldonza), sung by Don Quixote's love interest. Everything else sounds like it's been poured in as an afterthought.
The book is weak. Cervantes dresses as Don Quixote, who's crazy as a loon but full of virtue, the kind Cervantes imagines will move the thieves and murderers. There's more incident - mostly of the wannabe knight's daffy deeds - than plot, and the script hammers away at the idea that madness brings its own clarity. We got it the first two times; we don't need five more.
A key element of the narrative is the attempts of Quixote's relatives to get the guy out of public sight and back to sanity, as his misadventures are threatening the family's reputation. But where's the pursuit? Where's the menace? The clan sing a song early in the first act and then don't reappear until late in the second, when one of them uses mirrors to make Don Quixote see himself for what he is. It works but I have no idea why.
It's a scene that exposes the show's tepid production values. In an early sequence, gorgeous shadow puppets of the two lead characters suggest visual delights that never materialize. With a stunning windmill churning at the back, Douglas Paraschuk's set is as dark as director Robert McQueen's vision of the show. The latter has obviously held back Don Quixote's squire, Sancho, played winningly by Steve Ross, who isn't given the chance to provide the comic relief the piece needs.
Too bad Robin Hutton as Aldonza, the sexually exploited scullery maid Don Quixote exalts as Dulcinea, can't hit the high notes with authority. She acts her face off in an effort to compensate, and almost does, but this is musical theatre, so her limited vocal range is difficult to ignore.
Tom Rooney is terrific as Cervantes/Don Quixote, and might carry the show if it were stronger and had more than one idea.
And am I the only one who finds Act 2's opening scene pitting Don and Sancho against thieving Arabs queasy-making in its racist tone?
Like I said, the show doesn't stand up.