Don Quixote, the idealistic/deluded knight-errant, savors a filthy bar rag he takes to be a token from his beloved, and his face lights up in ecstasy. The moment neatly encapsulates the disconnect between the central figure of "Man of La Mancha" and the other characters, all of whom are grounded in what we like to call reality.
Don Matthews, who is Cervantes/Don Quixote in Randall Theatre's new revival, places the character just a quickstep this side of barking craziness. The "token" belongs to the tavern slut Aldonza (Pam Ward), whom Quixote believes to be the lady Dulcinea. She threw it at the happy-go-lucky Sancho Panza (Jon Oles), Quixote's minion, who passed it on to our hero, and Matthews' eyes go wide in wonder as he caresses it.
Such is the power of dreaming the impossible dream. Propelled by a strong performance from Matthews, with stalwart support from Ward as Prisoner/Aldonza/Dulcinea and Oles as Manservant/Sancho, the Randall's enthusiastic take on the iconic musical makes you want to believe.
The story of Don Quixote, the mad knight, is a play within a play, performed under Cervantes' direction with the other prisoners as Cervantes awaits a date with the Inquisition. It is the late 1500s, long after the era of chivalry that still burns in the don's imagination. In a gig as a tax collector, Cervantes foreclosed on a church, so he and Sancho have been thrown into a co-ed dungeon to await their fate.
The other prisoners claim the twosome's possessions, which they've brought with them in a trunk. But wait. Cervantes talks the riff-raff into a mock trial to settle the matter. In addition to being a failed taxman, he's a failed soldier and a failed actor, and the trunk is filled with props. The ensuing trial, in which the dungeon becomes an inn with the prisoners playing the parts, is the heart of the play we see.
The Randall is an intimate space with no proscenium, so the audience, looking down at the stage, may have the feeling of being almost in the set. In this case that's designer Greg Franklin and director Toni Holley's early-modern, two-level dungeon, which accommodates the play's large company.
This can work for a play or against it. Holley often has the actors gathered in two groups, with the trial's "judge" (the play-within-a-play's innkeeper, played by Sig Dekany) and various serving wenches in the "inn" on one side, and rough customers such as a scurvy bunch of mule drivers on the other. This sometimes makes the action hard to follow, but it frames the action as Quixote, Sancho, Aldonza/Dulcinea and others come front and center.
The theme is an ancient one: the line between fantasy and reality. It plays out, pointedly, not on the larger-than-life scope imagined by its protagonist, but on a reduced scale rich in irony. The hero acts from the noblest of motives and makes things worse and worse.
Matthews, the morning voice of classical music on Jefferson Public Radio, is a trained singer with the pipes to deliver Mitch Leigh's and Joe Darion's great songs, including a sweeping take on the iconic "The Impossible Dream," which is sung essentially to the audience. If his bonkers character has to go down in flames, there will be splendor in the ashes.
Oles' hits the mark as the earthy Sancho, whose nature is in many ways the opposite of his master's, but who follows him anyway — as he explains matter-of-factly in the understated "I Just Like Him."
But it is the prisoner who becomes Aldonza/Dulcinea who has maybe the most interesting arc. As she goes from cynical bar girl ("It's All the Same") to victim of a rape ("Little Bird, Little Bird") to her ultimate conversion to a believer in dreams, Ward's singing voice and even her face reflect her journey.
The whole thing is staged to a recorded soundtrack. The dancing is effective without ever taking over. There was a muffed line or two, but recoveries were quick.
To take on a big musical is a major challenge — and a bold choice — for an up-and-coming community theater. While the acting and singing are somewhat uneven, the staging is so ebullient — and the performers' high spirits contagious enough — that you'll probably leave looking for dragons to fight.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.