Clarence Brown Theatre Takes on '60s Icon Man of La Mancha

Americans of a certain age may not be tempted by a musical in which the key song is called "The Impossible Dream." If you're old enough to remember the Carson show, you've heard it sung dozens of times, by Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, Ed Ames, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Richard Kiley, Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones, the Lettermen, Sammy Davis Jr., and the incomparable Jim Nabors. There was a time when that song was almost like a test pattern, on TV every time you turned the damn thing on.

The fact that it was written to be sung by Don Quixote, Western literature's most famous delusional, got lost in the footlights. (Andy Williams rarely sang it with a tin pan on his head.) It became the gold standard of '60s corn.

The people who have to be dragged to see Clarence Brown's production of Man of La Mancha are the ones who will be most surprised by it. They'll find out, as this reviewer did, seeing it for the first time 45 years after first hearing of it, Man of La Mancha is not a sappy feel-good musical.

The story has some existential heft, and quips worthy of Oscar Wilde—"I don't have the courage to believe in nothing," says the main character, as he bemoans "the melancholy burden of sanity." And it opens with a twist. Not just a transliteration of Cervantes' classic story of a sympathetic loser who believed himself to be a knight, the story opens with the author, Cervantes himself, as a character, "an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man," targeted by the Spanish Inquisition. (There's some poetic license here; Cervantes was jailed a few times in his life, but not necessarily as a result of the Inquisition, and died a free, and old, man.) Thrown into a dungeon with a hostile rabble of the doomed, the author, presented as an accomplished actor, and his good-spirited cohort suddenly take on the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to amuse and distract their violent new roommates, and for long spells, the story somehow becomes the real story watched by the audience.

Played by CBT veterans David Kortemeier and Neil Friedman, Quixote and Panza make the jumps between the characters so deftly that if you go to the bathroom at the wrong time and return, you may not recognize them. (Kortemeier arguably plays three roles, including a transitional character named Alonso Quijana, the old man who suffers the Quixote delusion.) I'm not sure Kortemeier really needs to look at the audience cross-eyed to convince us he was in crazy Quixote mode, but he does anyway.

It's all well done. Quixote, one of the most important characters ever invented, if only for his usefulness as metaphor, reminds you a lot of some people, and a little bit of everybody. The bizarre Knight of Mirrors, a technically startling apparition in this production, commands him to "behold things as they really are." It's a challenge few of us would accept.

Friedman, as the jolly Panza, was an audience favorite. Katy Wolfe Zahn gives a physical performance as the tough-minded whore who's relationship with her fellow prisoners is uneasy; ultimately she's unsure what to think about the fact that Quixote mistakes her for the beautiful Dulcinea, his ideal of womanhood.

Some of the transitions could puzzle literalists. You may be left with several questions about what's real and what's not which may follow you out to the parking lot.

The play's performed without an intermission, without a scene change, and in fact, without a curtain. It's a little over two hours without a break, like a lot of movies, but even with only one scene and a 45-year-old script, this play may hit you harder than any movie this year. Early productions, in the minimalist '60s, portrayed the dungeon in a spare sort of way, but the CBT goes all out in a way worthy of the set designers of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the colorfully gloomy and complex two-story prison of battered brick walls, a giant gear turns and appears to lift a gate and raise a drawbridge for every ominous entry of soldiers. The large cast, always animated, keeps the stage busy, and on a couple of occasions cooperate in some complex slapstick as carefully choreographed as ballet, and more interesting to watch.

Accompanied by a small pit orchestra, the 25 songs in the score are Broadway-Spanish, heavy on the guitars and brass. Though tremolos suggest trained voices, the singing's so-so, about what you might expect from a random population in a Spanish dungeon, and the occasional missed pitch ruins nothing much. Few of them could make a living singing with the exception of Zahn and especially Ryan Stem, the tenor padre who chimes in with a song now and then.

When That Song finally comes around, courtesy of Kortemeier, well, it works all right. You may hear it and not even think about all those guys in tuxedoes and blow-dried hair over the years, flirting with the TV camera as they sang into a hand-held mike about bearing the unbearable sorrow.