The set design for the Stages St. Louis production of Man of La Mancha is formidable. This gloomy holding area for a sixteenth-century prison during the Spanish Inquisition looks rock-solid. Thick stone walls extend into the theater wings. Oh, it's impressive. There's just one problem: It's wrong.
Such an imposing prison renders the stage small. Though Man of La Mancha is a one-set musical, the playing space feels constricted. (By contrast, last month on this same stage the Kirkwood Theatre Guild production of the sixteen-set Bells Are Ringing felt airy.) Something is amiss, and you only have to turn to page one of the script to realize what. There the playwright states that the La Mancha set should be "an abstract platform whose elements are fluid and adaptable." What we get here is literal and earthbound.
One wonders if in our strident times this exercise in optimism hasn't also become -- if not earthbound -- at least as decrepit as its protagonist's rusty armor. Nevertheless, this musical adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote holds a unique place in American theater annals, because it, more than any other play or musical, helped a nation to heal. Lerner and Loewe's Camelot will always be linked to the JFK presidency. But Man of La Mancha, which opened in New York City on November 22, 1965, two years to the day after Kennedy's assassination, instantly tapped into the grieving process. In contrast to Camelot's eulogistic "once there was a fleeting wisp of glory," the idealistic Quixote assures audiences that "the bright and shining glory" is still at hand. Like the slain president, Quixote dies before our eyes. But then, in an act of theatrical catharsis, he is resurrected and ascends a stairway into a heavenly shaft of light. No wonder that, as the show's original director wrote, the initial La Mancha audiences were "not just watching a play, they were having a religious experience."
Those who attend the current production should be more prepared for a Branson experience: by the numbers and on the beat. Exhibit A: the finale of "Dulcinea." So what if the kitchen slut Aldonza is the butt of jeering derision? As the song concludes, she leaps onto a table and flings her arm into the air as if she were Ann-Margret posing at the end of her nightclub act. It's so wrong. Or how about the abduction number, when Aldonza is brutally beaten? This innocuous staging is about as brutal as a round of "Mother, May I?" And who devised the opening? A man walks onstage, strips to his waist -- at which point a fellow with a bullwhip appears. Is this La Mancha set in Spain, or the Manhattan baths?
It's clear that the leading performers have not been directed. If they had been, Cervantes (Gary Lindemann) would pay more heed to clarifying the exposition as he sets up the play within a play, and there'd be a little less contemporary Brooklyn and a little more period Seville in the Aldonza of Jean Arbeiter. Although it's unusual to see a Sancho Panza who's as tall as Quixote, at least Edward Juvier captures his character's charm and delivers a polished, confident performance. Among the supporting roles, Christopher Guilmet's pragmatic Dr. Carrasco instills the evening with some much-needed presence and intensity, and Steve Isom (even without a bullwhip) veritably flogs the opening scene to get the show moving.
"Enter into my imagination," Cervantes implores the viewer as he transforms himself into Don Quixote. This production needs all the help you can muster. But if you're able to drain yourself of cynicism and remove yourself to a time prior to the Iraq War, prior to 9/11, prior to Clinton's impeachment and the onset of the AIDS plague, prior to the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, prior to the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, then perhaps you can appreciate how once upon a time, oh so long ago, a musical espousing idealism and hope could touch a playgoer's heart.