"The Impossible Dream" seems surprisingly achievable in director Amanda Dehnert's commendable production of "Man of La Mancha," the opening show of the Cleveland Play House's 2007-08 season.
The award winning musical, on-stage through Oct. 7, is perhaps best known for its inspiring anthem, which refers to the quest of righting the world's wrongs. It is the objective of lead character Don Quixote, an aged knight who refuses to believe the age of chivalry has died and that a prostitute named Aldonza is not a refined lady really named Dulcinea.
I come away feeling people can accomplish this quest for several reasons. Among them is the intimate, personable production Dehnert has assembled.
The set is bare bones; at least one performer sits Indian-style on the stage and the "instruments" include (a real) guitar, finger-snapping, clapping and drums simulated by performers tapping on a chest. You almost want to sing, clap or tap along with the actors.
Another element contributing to the personal nature of the production is the Drury Theatre which is not tiny, but more intimate than the Playhouse's other performance space. All this closeness symbolizes the notion the "Impossible Dream" is not a far-fetched quest that is beyond humanity's reach.
I have heard soundtracks of "Man of La Mancha" in which Don Quixote is portrayed as some godly figure out to change the world. In this production, Broadway actor Philip Hernandez imbues Quixote with the kind of infectious sincerity and conviction necessary for us to believe the knight is serious about his mission despite the fact the other characters consider him a naive fool. Hernandez deftly conveys emotion through his strong, rich singing voice. He radiates tenderness when singing softly and strong determination during his louder selections.
Hernandez, who could use some aging make-up, displays great chemistry with Aldonza/Dulcinea, who undergoes a transformation from an unrefined, crass prostitute to a thankful lady in love with Quixote by show's end. Rachael Warren oozes bitterness and exasperation as Aldonza the prostitute and later, loving kindness as the transformed Dulcinea.
Transformation of characters was a theme Dehnert emphasized in directing last year's hit playhouse production of "My Fair Lady." She did so, in part, by having the performers change costumes on-stage, symbolizing the process of molding oneself into a new person. The performers do likewise in this production.
Dehnert, in a Plain Dealer preview story, said she believes the essence of "Man of La Mancha" is "the power of the imagination, the power of stories to change lives and give hope."
Imagination is an important element to the musical, which is a play within a play. Real-life author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) is thrown into prison during the Spanish Inquisition, and his fellow prisoners threaten to steal his manuscript of "Don Quixote" the very novel on which the musical is based.
Defending himself during a quasi-trial, Cervantes re-enacts his story, transforming into Quixote, while the other prisoners become the other characters, including Quixote's loyal sidekick (a loveably skittish Jamie La Verdiere, who sounds a little like actor Matthew Broderick). As the author's story unfolds, the tale of the righteous knight wins over the prisoners' hearts, forcing them to rethink their plan to steal the manuscript.
Quixote's quest may seem too naive and idealistic. But, the audience leaves the theater realizing each of us can free ourselves from our own prison of complacency, unearth the Don Quixote within us and do something to improve the world.
We realize it is not an impossible dream after walking away from this impressive production.
WHAT: "Man of La Mancha"
WHEN: Through Oct. 7. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; 1:30 p.m. Sept. 27 and 7 p.m. Oct. 2.
WHERE: Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave.