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Don Quixote arrived in Alexandria last weekend. He mistook it for New York. He thought the cavernous auditorium of a Catholic high school was a Broadway theater. He thought a dozen musicians were a full pit orchestra, that a large cast was up to not only atmospherically sensitive portrayals but also the musical challenges of a dauntingly syncopated, lyrical score. And he thought that a young local theater company could bring off, in its first production of a major musical, the sprawling, demanding technical feats required of a 36-year-old blockbuster. In short, the Don, as is his wont, aspired to nobility and risked falling hard upon his ass.
No. Wait. That’s not Don Quixote. That’s Mark A. Rhea, artistic director of the 4-year-old Keegan Theatre company and director of its Man of La Mancha, that well-roasted but still tasty chestnut by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh, and Joe Darion. Well, Rhea and his bold lads and lasses may tumble off their horses once or twice, but you know what? His impossible dream looks pretty dreamy up there.
For those of you who don’t have the story etched a quarter-inch deep into your cerebral cortex, it begins with Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (David Jourdan) and his manservant (Robert Leembruggen) being thrown in prison for attempting, in their work as tax collectors, to foreclose on a church. Such an act can be delicate in the best of times. In the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, it’s particularly touchy. (It’s rather sporting, really, of the
Diocese of Arlington to host the production. But then, water under the bridge and all that.)
The writer and his servant share a foul dungeon with murderers, thieves, and other base predators, who snatch Cervantes’ possessions, including a prized manuscript, and seem well-poised to take his life as well. The prisoners subject him to a mock trial, and, to leaven their temperaments and buy himself time, he proceeds to tell them the story of a country gentleman, Alonso Quijana, who aspires to gallant knighthood in the personage of Don Quixotenever mind that knights went extinct some 300 years earlier. Cervantes’ manservant, like the squire’s lackey in the story, indulges his master by taking on the role of Sancho Panza, the knight’s faithful attendant. Arriving at an earthy innby way of the famed vicious windmill, with whom the unhinged warrior engages in battlethe Don begins to woo the hapless maidservant Aldonza (Toni Rae Brotons), who, he decidesall evidence to the contraryis the virginal lady Dulcinea. A knight errant, with the accent on “err,” he also misconstrues the inn for a castle, the innkeeper for a knight, a barber’s basin for a golden helmet, a band of Gypsies for Moroccan royals, and so on.
This is a story (about the Don) within a story (that of Cervantes’ imprisonment). These tales both concern daunting circumstances and the escapist visions that transcend them. To them, let’s add the story about Rhea’s inspiring an exceptionally well-prepared cast and crew to defy expectations, share his ambitious vision, and deliver a pleasing, if not always entirely professional, product. Unmiked, the cast, by and large, render the songs with finesse and admirable projection. But a fair amount of the dialogue is lost. (I suppose, if you wanted to present the issue in a more sunnily Quixotic light, you could credit Rhea with choosing a musical so well known that audible dialogue is perhaps not a necessity.)
Beyond that obvious problem, however, the players really shine. Jourdan, in the title role, achieves the requisite alchemy to switch back and forth between the melancholy, charismatic Cervantes and the beautifully batty Knight of the Woeful Countenance. He also has the rich and fluid baritone, taxed maybe just a bit toward the low end, to put across the sweet homage “Dulcinea” and even “The Impossible Dream”which, in lesser hands, could induce post-traumatic lousy-dinner-theater syndrome,
evidenced by involuntary eye-rolling and program shuffling.
Brotons is a splendid Aldonza. She is as clawing as an alley cat in dissuading the inn’s grabby, bawdy regulars. But she also has that core of intransigent dignity that makes us think perhaps Quixote’s not so mad to mistake her for a maiden manor-born. “What Does He Want of Me?” she sings in a vigorous, phosphorescent soprano, at once perplexed and awaking to her own higher sensibilities. She comes to realize, as do we, that if he’s tragically mistaken herand the results are tragicfor something more than she thought she was,
mistaking him similarly is no small gift. As the maid tries to open Quixote’s eyes to who she really is in the stirring “Aldonza,” Brotons brings Quixote and audience alike under her angry, impassioned spell.
Brotons and Leembruggen have a wonderfully sly rapport around
Sancho Panza’s reading of Quixote’s “missive” to Dulcinea. In numbers such as “I Really Like Him,” Leembruggen makes up for a thin tenor with crafty talk-singing. And in the nonmusical portions, his
timing is smart, his straight-man delivery peppered with
Another standout: Joseph Pindelski as the Padre. Though nerves or acoustics put him a little sharp in “To Each His Dulcinea,” his singing is fabulous in “I’m Only Thinking of Him” and “The Psalm.” Margie Tompros, as Quixote’s niece, Antonia, also has a luminous voice and a solid presence that beg for a larger role. And dancer Nikki DeVylder is a wonderfully enticing, and awesomely aerobicized, Moorish Girl.
Musical director Judy Levine keeps standards very high but knows how to bend to the occasional singer who lags a littleand yes, there are a few. With the exception of some brass stumbles in the overture and occasionally trailing percussion, the musicians Levine has assembled provide a full, controlled sound that belies their paltry number. George Lucas’ sprawling set ingeniously mimics ancient masonry and also withstands a beating at the hands, and feet, of jumping prisoners, rowdy pubsters, and flailing knights. And Maggie Butler’s sensational costumes are dead-on in mood and detail, from Quixote’s clamoring armor to the sinister black robes and hoods of the mirror knights to the inmates’ wretched rags.
This musical is a paean to idealism, in all its richness and ridiculousness. Presented poorly, it deflates into Man of La Nausea. But Rhea & Co. joust earnestly with its timeless themes and, though
outmatched by some logistical windmills, charge valiantly to
victory. As you head out to Duke Street humming the finale, you’ll see a bright flash. The signage of Generous George’s pizza parlor? Of course not. It’s the glint, from the school auditorium on the hill behind you, of Rhea’s armor. CP