Man of La Mancha

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The SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre’s production of “Man of La Mancha” is thought-provoking and non-traditional, a classic musical with a decidedly unusual story-telling format, full of rich characters, intelligent themes and some experimental (i.e., weird) theatrical devices.

Pretty heady stuff for a summertime show (especially, I say with no ill intent, for SCERA).

Based on the 17th-century Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes, the 1965 musical begins with the author himself (Art Allen) cast into prison, awaiting the Inquisition. Using his fellow inmates as actors, he tells the story of Alonso Quijana, an old man who escapes from the home and thinks he’s a knight named Don Quixote.

Quixote (still played by Allen) travels with the sensible and stooge-like Sancho Panza (Jaelan Petrie), in search of damsels in distress and other adventures. He’s an idealist — that is, he’s delusional, seeing things as he wants them to be, rather than as they are.

This particularly applies to a country-inn serving wench named Aldonza (Megan Christensen), a woman of ill repute and even iller temper whom Quixote insists on calling “Dulcinea,” treating her like a lady rather than like the stinky whore she is. It is for her that he does his deeds of chivalry, hoping to be dubbed a true knight by the “Lord of the Castle,” who’s really just the innkeeper (Erik Christensen the night of the review; now played by Michael Gray).

The story keeps coming back to the prison, where Cervantes sets up the next couple scenes and assigns actors to them. It’s an unusual play-within-a-play technique that develops resonance by the end, when we see how Don Quixote/Alonso Quijana’s adventures relate to those of every-day guy Cervantes and his fellow prisoners.

Objecting to Alonso’s doddering foolishness is his niece’s fiance, Carrasco (Matthew Herrick), who is embarrassed to be marrying into a family presided over by a man who thinks he’s a knight. His attempts to bring Alonso back to “reality” are poignant and even disturbing, for who among us ever wants to give up his dreams?

That, ultimately, is the point of the show: Never give up your dreams, no matter how unrealistic they are. (It is not for nothing that “The Impossible Dream” is one of the most stirring songs in musical theater.)

Art Allen plays Cervantes, Alonso and Don Quixote with great vigor and energy, fully committing himself to the emotions and passions of the three characters and earning every bit of praise the audience gives him. Jaelan Petrie is enjoyable as his dedicated sidekick, and Megan Christensen’s Aldonza/Dulcinea is sympathetic and real. All three — in fact, the entire cast — have fantastic singing voices, perfectly complementing the exciting Spanish-tinged musical score.

Despite its unusual format and deep messages, “Man of La Mancha” should still have mainstream appeal. If you normally prefer pure escapist entertainment, try this one and see if you don’t like it just as well.

A woman sitting near me was reading a book during the play's first half. Presumably, she stopped for the second act only because this was an outdoor theater, and it had grown too dark. The show's director was sitting behind me. If she saw the woman reading the book during her play, I marvel at her restraint in not slaying that woman.

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