Man of La Mancha

Chronologically, the first noteworthy thing in the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s highly noteworthy production of “Man of La Mancha” is Andrew Hopson’s sound design. The characters are sitting in a dark, dank prison, and when one of them begins to dance, the clapping of his hands echoes. So do other sounds, we slowly realize. We have been effectively transported to a Spanish dungeon; we are IN this play.

And what a play to be in! The flamenco-tinged syncopations of Mitch Leigh’s music, the uplifting tones of Dale Wasserman’s and Joe Darion’s book and lyrics, the sheer nobility of seeking to “reach the unreachable star” — “Man of La Mancha” is a glorious piece of work anyway, and director/choreographer Brad Carroll and musical director Jeremy Mann have seen to it that this production fulfills every bit of its destiny.

Robert Peterson’s booming voice has boomed all over Utah — notably in some 90 productions at Pioneer Theatre Company — and it’s about time he showed up here, in a role written for someone with the sort of dignity and charisma he exudes. As Miguel Cervantes, tossed into prison during the Spanish Inquisition, he is bowed but unbroken. As the doddering fool Alonso Quijana, who fancies himself a knight named Don Quixote, his optimism is infectious.

As Sancho, Don Quixote’s right-hand man, Peter Sham is adorably devoted. Sham does not have the strongest or best singing voice in the cast, but it suits his character. His solo, “I Really Like Him,” is utterly charming.

Let us save praise also for Andrea-Frierson Toney, who plays Aldonza, the serving wench whom Don Quixote insists on calling Dulcinea. Her transformation from part-time hooker to a woman of dignity is enchanting, and her last line — “My name is Dulcinea” — has a world of meaning behind it.

The staging, particularly fight sequences, often has an air of heightened reality about it, with punches exaggerated and sound effects unused. It is fitting, since most of the show exists in Cervantes’ imagination. The unusual concept for the play — Cervantes and his fellow prisoners acting out the story of Don Quixote — has never seemed so accessible and straightforward.

Don Quixote is a man who sees things not as they are, but as they ought to be. Idealism has its downsides, to be sure, and they are gravely noted within the show. But “Man of La Mancha” asks: Without a little idealism, how will things ever become ideal? This is a fine production.

Always amused by the Utah Shakespearean Festival including non-Shakespeare plays, I began referring to this as "Shakespeare's 'Man of La Mancha.'" I was along this trip, so I had to entertain myself somehow.