The stage version of "Man of La Mancha" in theory doesn't sound like it would be a riveting show. After all, it's about a man who fights windmills and wishes to be a knight. All that's seen from the adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' 17th century novels is a bare stage and a man telling a story as he awaits trial from the Spanish Inquisition. Despite the missing props, the costumes and themes of the story play into something far richer: the joy in imagining a world, or as the central song suggests: to dream the impossible dream. The La Mirada Theater decided to take this dream and ended up producing a riveting two hour show that brings one off-kilter story to life with heart and humor, and a few memorable tunes sung by a very talented cast.
The story begins with the main characters descending a staircase into a dungeon full of prisoners. They are held captive by the Spanish Inquisition. The man is Don Quixote (Davis Gaines), an actor who is put on trial by his peers. If he fails, he loses his most beloved possession: a notebook full of stories. He saves the day by getting the entire camp to perform a story of a man who wishes to become a knight. With costumes and limited props, the story quickly comes to life as the protagonist turns into the character and the story becomes a play within a play. Triumphantly, Don Quixote sings "Man of La Mancha" to a crowd that awaits his stage directions. Unlike him, they don't know stagecraft. What follows is a musical dedicated to the art of finding a balance between imagination and reality.
For a character perceived as delusional, Don Quixote needs a strong singer. With his opening song, he triumphantly cries to the back of the theater. It grabs the audience as the music gallops along with the actors playing horses, who get a fun yet brief tap dance number. There's already plenty of humor thrown into the design of the play within a play. The horses are half human, half wood, and a brief description of a castle establishes the delusion that makes Don Quixote a figure of pity to everyone he meets. Still, it takes an actor as strong as Gaines to pull it off with a strong sincerity and a sense that he is a brave man worthy of knighthood who is courting a princess that is actually a prostitute. He lives in his own world, and it's a miracle that anyone gets a song as good as him.
Yet that's part of what makes "Man of La Mancha" such a fascinating production. While its best songs ("Man of La Mancha," "The Impossible Dream") hit the heights of musical theater, there are other mundane moments ("I'm Only Thinking Of Him") that work contextually but lack a catchy play of lyrics. Among the noteworthy supporting cast is Aldonza, who is given a firey passion as she distinguishes herself between a disappointing existence, and the romanticized dream that Don Quixote wishes for her. "What Does He Want of Me?" shows her struggling with the idea of value: a concept new to her as she's fawned lustfully on by other men. Meanwhile, Don Quixote's sidekick Sancho Panza has more playful and comical numbers, such as the self-effacing "I Really Like Him." The songs do plenty to capture a classical, operatic style of musicals, but with a skewed sense of personality and ambition.
Because of its limits and lack of dance numbers, parts of "Man of La Mancha" do play a little slow to contemporary audiences. Even then, they will be impressed by how powerful Gaines' performance is. He sings with an earnestness that will make skeptics believe the silliest things. He gives the role purpose, and makes the sad but poignant finale into a powerful statement. It's important to dream, for it makes everyone feel more alive. It's what's not seen that makes "Man of La Mancha" so enjoyable. It may be lacking overall for greatest songbook, but its story is still rich with emotion, humor, and performances that compensate for anything else. It will make the audience want to dream impossible dreams, for that is what makes life worth living to begin with.