“Only wait, and thou shalt see amazing sights.”
Presented as a musical play-within-a-play, “Man of La Mancha” takes its inspiration and much of its storyline from Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 tale “Don Quixote,” considered the first modern novel, as well as Cervantes’ own life.
The original 1965 production, written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, won five Tony Awards, including best musical. This version reminds us why “Man of La Mancha” is still considered a classic — from its fun, Spanish-flavored soundtrack to its timeless message about the importance of following one’s dreams.
Set during the Spanish Inquisition, “Man of La Mancha” opens in a putrid prison populated by thieves, murderers and political prisoners.
Before inmates face the inquisitors, the gruff Governor (Erik Stein) explains, they must first endure a trial of their fellow prisoners.
The Duke (Andrew Philpot) lists the charges against the accused: “Miguel de Cervantes, I charge you with being an idealist, a bad poet and an honest man.”
Cervantes decides to stage his defense in the form of “an entertainment” about Alonso Quixano, a Spanish nobleman so obsessed with tales of adventure and chivalry that he decides to become a knight and “sally forth throughout the world to right all wrongs.”
Accompanied by Sancho Panza (Cortez), his steadfast servant and friend, Quixano dubs himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and sets out on his quest, armed only with a wooden sword and lance. (Instead of actual steeds, they travel on wheeled wooden contraptions with puppet heads operated by Lucas Blair and Alex Stewart.)
As the two travel, it becomes clear that they approach the world very differently. Sancho relies on his copious collection of proverbs to interpret reality, while Quixote prefers his imagination.
“Facts,” Quixote tells us, “are the enemy of truth.”
Filtered through Quixote’s delusional gaze, a whirling windmill becomes a vicious, four-armed giant and a shaving basin belonging to a barber (Billy Breed) becomes the mythic Golden Helmet of Mambrino.
In place of a disreputable inn, the knight sees a mighty castle with banners flapping in the breeze. He also mistakes the innkeeper (Stein) for a lord and a sassy, sharp-tongued kitchen maid, Aldonza (Julie Garnyé, channeling Janeane Garofalo), for the beautiful, virginal love of his life, Dulcinea.
At first, Aldonza is convinced that Quixote is teasing her. After all, she’s only known abuse from the likes of brutish mule driver Pedro (George Walker, who also plays guitar onstage) and his men.
But she finds herself slowly seduced by Quixote’s courtly ways, swept away by this starry-eyed idealist and his quaint charm. (Hers is a feeling shared by others in the musical. When asked why he follows his master, Sancho replies simply, “I like him.”)
But not everyone is convinced that Quixano has changed for the better. His housekeeper (Elizabeth Stuart) frets that he’s gone batty and his niece, Antonia (Karin Hendricks), worries that her uncle’s behavior will jeopardize her upcoming marriage to the no-nonsense Dr. Carrasco (Philpot).
So Dr. Carrasco and the gentle Padre (Michael Jenkinson) depart on a mission of their own: to find Quixano and cure him of his madness.
Studwell delivers not one, but two, strong performances in the dual roles of Miguel de Cervantes and Alonso Quixano/Don Quixote. In one guise, he’s a nervous intellectual almost embarrassed by his literary pretensions. In the other, he's the ultimate romantic. Studwell’s hearty baritone serves him well in the musical’s best-known number, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest).”
The actor meets his equal in Julie Garnyé, whose superb soprano soars in Aldonza’s defiant anthem, “It's All the Same,” and the plaintive “What Does He Want With Me.” Her conversion from scornful observer to true believer is touching to see.
Cortez, meanwhile, provides able comic relief as the long-suffering but ever-faithful Sancho.
Mark Herrier directs “Man of La Mancha,” assisted by Jenkinson as choreographer, Matthew R. Meckes as music director and Mark Booher as fight director.
Jason Bolen designed the atmospheric, all-purpose prison set, while Eddy L. Barrows created the costumes – an artistically tattered collection of 16th century rags. Adding to the mood are lighting designer Jennifer “Z” Zornow and sound designer Elisabeth Weidner.
Their efforts, combined with those of the vast cast, make “Man de La Mancha” an inspiring experience.
“Man of La Mancha”
8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; through Aug. 16
Solvang Festival Theater, 420 Second St., Solvang
$38.50 to $49.50, discounts for seniors, students and children
922-8313 or www.pcpa.org