Rep’s ‘Man of La Mancha’ weaves a compelling tale

By Anne Siegel, contributing writer

The audience finds itself looking into a fetid dungeon at the end of the 16th century in Seville, Spain. In an introduction, we learn the prisoners are accused of various acts of heresy against the Catholic church.

The sudden appearance of a new prisoner — Miguel de Cervantes — is the elixir that transforms this darkly lit cesspool of a world into an imaginary place where even a misguided knight might find hope and recognition. Thus begins the tale of the Man of La Mancha, the Tony Award-winning musical written in 1964 by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh and now revived by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

The trick here is to enable Cervantes and his makeshift “cast” of prisoners to weave a fascinating and compelling tale. Its main character is Don Quixote, an older man perhaps touched by a hint of madness.

Under artistic director Mark Clements’ direction, a talented cast with superb singing voices accomplishes this trick.

Wisely, the production’s orchestra has been partially hidden behind some pillars at the rear of the stage. Although the musicians (under the direction of John Tanner) contribute tremendously to the show’s overall effect, this arrangement works nicely to showcase the actors and their songs.

The score always has been the strong point of Man of La Mancha. Even those who have never seen the musical might recognize some of the numbers, including “The Impossible Dream,” “To Each His Dulcinea” and the rousing “Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote).”

And yet, as sung by Nathaniel Stampley (as Miguel/Quixote), Leenya Rideout (Aldonza/Dulcinea) and Michael J. Farina (Sancho Panza), the songs seem new and fresh.

Stampley, the handsome baritone who transforms himself into Don Quixote, almost scampers among the rest of the cast as he gets caught up in Quixote’s dreams. This role is a familiar one to him, as he played it in a Chicago production this summer. Stampley earned raves from Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones, who called his performance “almost unbearably honest,” and praised his skill at capturing the “enigma of his role.”

Based loosely on a 1604 novel by the real Miguel de Cervantes, the musical must convincingly show Quixote “reach for the unreachable star” in order to make others catch a glimpse of his magic. Sancho has already signed on as the play begins, but it takes longer for kitchen drudge and prostitute Aldonza to appreciate Quixote’s vision of life. This is understandable, as her cruel treatment by men has made her suspicious of their motives. Yet even she must be won over by Quixote’s charms, or the piece would not gel the way it does in this production.

Man of La Mancha
Leenya Rideout and the cast of “Man of La Mancha.”

There are laughs aplenty in the antics of Sancho and the other characters who cross Quixote’s path. But perhaps the most memorable moment for this reviewer is intensely quiet. As Quixote talks about his dreams, Aldonza lifts her head (for perhaps the first time) to gaze at the stars with him.

The moment doesn’t last long, as Aldonza is later taunted by the men who’ve come to sample her “services.” Their treatment leaves Aldonza bruised and shorn of her wild, fiery hair.

Local actors among ‘La Mancha’ standouts

Many in this fine cast deserve special mention, particularly local actors Jonathan Gillard Daly as the town priest, Matt Daniels as the Duke and Beth Mulkerron as the innkeeper’s wife.

Especially in this election season, it is refreshing to hear someone — even a character in a play — talk about the higher, perhaps more spiritual parts of existence. The current TV news coverage focuses more on the grungy aspects of life, which currently center on confidential emails and racist comments. Quixote rises above all that, to see how far we can go toward achieving more noble goals.

Whether one has seen Man of La Mancha once or even a dozen times, the Rep production is well worth another visit. It expertly dares us to dream even when faced with the certainty of death. In the musical’s final scene, when Miguel is summoned to face the Inquisitors, one can take heart in the knowledge that his dreams — now shared by others — will live on.

On stage

Man of La Mancha continues through Oct. 30 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse. For tickets, go to milwaukeerep.com or call the box office at 414-224-9490.