"Man of La Mancha," which was first produced in 1965 in a makeshift theater in Washington Square, has been given an expensive, high-tech Broadway revival. It's a little chilling to think what the Inquisition, which plays a big role in this musical, might have done had it had such resources. A high-tech dungeon might have helped the inquisitors do their job more efficiently and, I fear, ruthlessly. I'm not sure omni- present technology is helpful to a musical that concerns itself with the human imagination. This "La Mancha" seldom has the human fire that would serve as a counterweight to its massive production. The musical, unorthodox in its time, slender in its musical offerings, has always drawn audiences because of its hit song, "The Impossible Dream."
Given that built-in appeal, the major miscalculation in the casting of this production - the leading man - probably doesn't matter, especially since the supporting cast is so strong. In the mid-'60s, when the Broadway musical was awash in glitz, the Dale Wasserman-Mitch Leigh-Joe Darion show was a refreshing change of pace. It was set on a nearly bare stage, which represented a prison cell. Wasserman's book was based on historical reality. Miguel de Cervantes - a 16th-century actor and playwright whose main source of income was collecting taxes - was imprisoned by the Church simply for doing his job: attempting to collect taxes on church property. While awaiting the inquisitors, the hapless author tells his fellow prisoners a story he has concocted about a voracious reader who imagines himself a knight. Cervantes becomes his character, Don Quixote, and the prisoners become all the other figures in the story. For this production, the stage is dominated by a huge metallic shell of a prison, with a staircase that starts practically at the top and curves its way down. Occasionally, this gigantic structure rotates, breaking the staircase and letting glimpses of the reality outside shine in. (Oddly, at times we see masses of sunflowers, which made me think the chorus would soon burst into "Oklahoma!")
The set, by Paul Brown, overshadows the fanciful action. This might not matter if Brian Stokes Mitchell had the power to make both Cervantes and his immortal creation resonate. What he has is a splendid baritone, but that is hollow without an inner life that can bring the fairly simplistic, even monotonous songs to life. What he most lacks is vulnerability. He is too much the leading man to be either of these poignant creatures. His Quixote seems dull-witted, rather than demented or deluded. The staging, by Jonathan Kent, does not help. It is surprisingly routine, and the choreography, by Luiz Perez, labored. The evening comes alive whenever Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as his muse, Dulcinea, sings. She is an extraordinary actress-singer, and I hope this show makes her a fixture of our musical theater. Ernie Sabella is an endearing Sancho Panza, and the supporting cast, with such splendid talents as Stephen Bogardus, Mark Jacoby and Don Mayo, plays a variety of roles beautifully.
How possible nowadays is that impossible dream? Does the cockeyed idealism suggesting that you could actually reach unreachable stars still get to us, even with the magnificent Brian Stokes Mitchell as Don Quixote, that woeful knight errant?
Perhaps. Those who may not see "Man of La Mancha" as a natural Broadway classic might be surprised by how well, with a little shrewd dirtying up, it emerged last night at the Martin Beck Theatre.
Broadway could be in much the same mood that suffused it back in 1965 - when the original "La Mancha" played 2,328 performances - and ready to embrace the show's giddy optimism and composer Mitch Leigh's bold, Spanish-tinged lyricism.
This revival is something of a homecoming, for it was at this same theater that the show ended its original run. But it's a homecoming with a difference.
Earlier "La Mancha" Broadway revivals all have been virtual replicas of the first production, by Albert Marre.
This time, the staging has been given a revisionist approach by British director Jonathan Kent. (Now that the Brits have given up sending us their own musicals, they seem to concentrate on reinventing ours - often with notable success.)
What Kent has done is to deconstruct and generally deglamorize the original. There are no amiably comic mules here, for this is a more realistic 16th-century Spain than the original suggested.
The architecturally solemn setting - a waiting room to hell - and Paul Brown's distressed costumes wonderfully suggest the prison in which Cervantes, Don Quixote's creator, finds himself before facing the Inquisition.
All of it works extremely well with author Dale Wasserman's story-within-a-story of Cervantes himself enacting the tale of Don Quixote before his fellow prisoners, and with their assistance.
Wasserman's marvelously theatrical concept (it was originally a TV play) is as fascinating as ever, though Leigh's music, with its painlessly banal lyrics by Joe Darion, now sounds a tad more nostalgic than thrilling.
Yet the production gives the old war horse every help. Mitchell is every bit as good as one would have expected. He acts with a poignant nobility as the aged Quixote, and sharply differentiates between him and the still robust Cervantes.
He also sings strikingly well, at times sounding remarkably like Richard Kiley, that first and definitive Quixote, with the same lustrous but incisive tone.
The surprises come not from Mitchell but from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Aldonza, the serving slut Quixote imagines to be his lady, Dulcinea, and Ernie Sabella as Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza. Mastrantonio, who sings beautifully, acts with bawdy finesse and petulant conviction. Sabella, with his collapsible face and hang-dog manner, is simply lovable in his love for his master.
With sound performances from Mark Jacoby, Stephen Bogardus and Don Mayo, workmanlike choreography by Luis Perez (more appropriate than Jack Cole's overly cute original), this could well be a "Man of La Mancha" for our time.
Call him brave. Call him foolhardy. Call him, if you must, quixotic. But you really can't blame Brian Stokes Mitchell for wanting to take on the title role in ''Man of La Mancha,'' which opened last night in a stiflingly overscaled production at the Martin Beck Theater.
Like Don Quixote, the show's windmill-jousting hero and a self-styled gentleman knight in a less than chivalrous age, Mr. Mitchell belongs to a noble, exotic and fast-shrinking species: the musical matinee idol, the kind whose baritone seems to cover everything around him in plush velvet.
Since new shows designed to set off this brand of starlight don't come around much anymore, it is easy to see why Mr. Mitchell -- who won a Tony as, well, a musical matinee idol in ''Kiss Me, Kate'' -- would be seduced by the idea of ''Man of La Mancha,'' Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's starry-eyed retelling of Cervantes's ''Don Quixote,'' which became a sleeper superhit in 1965.
Never mind that when the show was mounted on Broadway only 10 years ago, in a production starring Raul Julia and the pop star Sheena Easton, critics heard the creaking of dry old bones. No one, not even Peter O'Toole in the movie version, had erased the memory of Richard Kiley in the part that secured his place in the theater's firmament of legends. Why shouldn't Mr. Mitchell try to claim Quixote for contemporary times, as Alan Cumming did with the M.C.'s role in ''Cabaret''?
There is a moment -- and it really is only one moment -- when Mr. Mitchell's gamble pays off big, and its predictability doesn't gainsay the shivers it inspires. It comes when Mr. Mitchell, playing Cervantes playing Quixote, is singing ''The Impossible Dream,'' one of the most pervasive anthems of uplift in showbiz history and a song that will presumably wail on for as long as there are piano bars.
The number begins prosaically enough, with Mr. Mitchell handsomely if a bit woodenly delivering its opening verse to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who plays the village whore whom Quixote perceives as a virtuous damsel. Then, as so many stars have before him, Mr. Mitchell takes those irresistible steps to downstage center and unleashes the old vocal cords.
Suddenly the theater is suffused with a hokey but undeniable grandeur that is peculiar to musical theater. Mr. Mitchell, drenched in what feels like the convergence of a thousand spotlights, lets his voice reach for the heavens. His eyes take on a fanatical gleam, his spine seems to grow at least a foot and a dusty ballad suddenly sounds as if it had never set foot in Las Vegas.
That's it for epiphanies. If ''The Impossible Dream'' is the song you live by, you will probably want to be around for this rendition of it, which happens at roughly 9:15. Otherwise, ''Man of La Mancha,'' as staged by the eminent British director Jonathan Kent, seems curiously small and static, like an inspirational church basement show placed inexplicably in a vast cathedral. Even Mr. Mitchell, in a performance in sore need of variety, often appears to be shrinking.
Though ''La Mancha'' is widely thought of as a classic Broadway musical, it began its life at the ANTA Washington Square Theater in Greenwich Village, where it ran for a whopping 2,328 performances. (Kiley, who was as identified with the show as Yul Brynner was with ''The King and I,'' appeared in two Broadway revivals, in 1972 and 1977.)
Many people who saw the original production remember it with great warmth. Though Mr. Leigh's slick, lump-in-the-throat melodiousness is as far from the ragged rock of ''Hair'' as Doris Day is from Janis Joplin, the show still seemed very much a part of the 60's.
It translated countercultural, antiestablishment idealism -- the sort practiced by the pot-smoking guitar strummers who then regularly convened in nearby Washington Square -- into gauzily romantic terms that middle-of-the-roaders could feel comfortable with. In Quixote, who retreats into fantasies that turn a sickly, corrupt world into something splendid, ''La Mancha'' had the ultimate maverick hero, a Renaissance cousin to the wise, martyred madman-rebel of ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' (which Mr. Wasserman adapted for the stage). As one of the musical's chin-scratching lines has it, ''When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness.''
The show also fitted in with the vogue for do-it-yourself story theater that was emerging as an alternative to Broadway glitz. Set in a prison during the Spanish Inquisition, the musical finds Cervantes defending himself in a mock trial before his fellow inmates, who accuse him of being ''a bad poet, an idealist and an honest man.'' Cervantes, also a man of the theater, responds by performing the story of Quixote, with props and costumes from a battered trunk.
If you squint, you might see a parallel with a more confrontational theatrical exercise from 1965, which also featured a play-within-a-play performed by outcasts, Peter Brook's landmark production of Peter Weiss's ''Marat/Sade.'' Mr. Kent, in any case, seems to have latched on to that similarity. The prisoners in this ''La Mancha'' are an especially noisy and menacing lot, given to twirling in thugish ways (the macho choreography is by Luis Perez) and perching ominously on the rusting ironlike walls of Paul Brown's intimidating set.
Mr. Brown frequently worked at the Almeida Theater in London, where Mr. Kent was the artistic director, specializing in monumental but distinctly modern productions of harsh classics like ''Coriolanus,'' which reconceived ancient Rome in a starkly industrial space. ''Coriolanus,'' with Ralph Fiennes in the title role, could hold its own amid the grim vastness. ''La Mancha'' is a different proposition.
The dark, textured walls of Mr. Brown's set seem to climb into the ether, with circular staircases to match, and they periodically split open to reveal Technicolor vistas that correspond to Cervantes's imaginary world. Against such sinister majesty, the let's-pretend geniality of Mr. Wasserman's book and the sentimental sweetness of the songs, for all their high-flown lyrics, seem puny.
When a barber (the likable Jamie Torcellini) shows up in the play-within-the-play, for example, the ditty he sings as he makes his entrance is set off by the sudden spectacular vision of a radiant landscape of sunflowers. It's quite an eyeful, but why is the humble barber getting the star treatment? The moment undercuts the more important number that follows, in which Cervantes appropriates the barber's shaving bowl as a golden helmet.
The cast members understandably often get lost in all this space. The set asks for performances of operatic scope, and no one provides them here. The fine-featured Ms. Mastrantonio, an excellent actress, is miscast as the earthy Aldonza. Singing in a reedy, vibrato-heavy voice, she suggests a Judy Collins-like folk singer, newly sprung from Sarah Lawrence and hitting the coffeehouse circuit.
Ernie Sabella has the mirthful girth traditionally associated with Sancho, Quixote's sidekick, but he's a tentative singer, and you tend to forget that he's on the stage. Stephen Bogardus and Mark Jacoby, both assured and talented performers, are stuck in one-note parts.
As it should be, Mr. Mitchell remains the principal reason to revisit ''La Mancha.'' But he's in his full glory only when he sings. He has moments of bashful, gentle charm as the gallant Quixote. But his acting mostly stays in one stentorian key, and there is rarely any fire in this Quixote's madness.
When, early in the evening, Cervantes begins his narrative of Quixote's adventures, the prisoners help him fashion a wooden horse out of parts of wheels. It's a delightful instance of theatrical transformation. And when this Quixote mounts his Rocinante, makeshift lance in hand, you're all set to follow him wherever he wants to take you.
The horse, a fanciful prop awaiting the magic to make it move, just stands there. For the most part, so does the show.
There are times when a singer and a song are so perfectly matched that their union is as viscerally thrilling as a great love story. Such a moment occurs in the Broadway revival of Man of La Mancha, which opened Thursday at the Martin Beck Theatre, when Brian Stokes Mitchell realizes The Impossible Dream.
Mitchell, who stars as the nobly delusional Don Quixote and his creator, author Miguel de Cervantes, begins the musical's most famous tune softly, with the gentle purposefulness of one who knows that real drama requires patience and discretion. His mighty baritone slowly rises in volume, never overshadowing the lyric, reaching a sublime crescendo that will slay even the harshest critics of heroic hokum.
Directed by Jonathan Kent, former artistic director for Britain's Almeida Theatre, this La Mancha revels in the melodrama that librettist Dale Wasserman, composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion brought to their 1965 adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote.
But Kent and company also lend flashes of postmodern irony, playing up the musical's satirical edges and sending up its dated elements.
Mitchell seems almost too naturally gallant for the title role. At first glance, his Don Quixote appears more like the valiant knight he dreams of being than the aging madman others see. But as the character continues to deteriorate mentally — or to evolve morally, depending on your outlook — the actor projects an endearing vulnerability so that his hapless moments are as convincing as his transcendent ones.
As Aldonza, the mistreated servant whom Quixote worships, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio reveals a potent dramatic soprano and a still-luminous presence. Embittered but not entirely cynical, she's a perfect foil and muse for his bumbling yet poignant idealist.
The supporting actors are striking and sing beautifully, though some of their moments are marred by too-cheeky mugging. The cherubic Ernie Sabella is generally amusing as Quixote's faithful sidekick, Sancho, and Lorin Latarro and Andy Blankenbuehler inject welcome physical vibrancy as Gypsy dancers.
Yet no aspect of this La Mancha is more dazzling, or daunting, than Paul Brown's cavernous set, which envisions a late-16th-century Spanish prison as darkly fantastic as anything the guys who actually carried out the Inquisition could have come up with.
It's a tribute to the production, in fact, that despite some cloying gestures, the humanity driving Cervantes' improbable dream is never lost here.
Perhaps the phrase "to stage the unstageable show" should be added to the list of impossibilities in the lyrics of the hit tune that has powered "Man of La Mancha" to this, its third Broadway revival since the original 1965 production. The previous retreads, both directed by Albert Marre, who helmed the massively successful original as well, didn't last long on Broadway. This new staging, with Jonathan Kent in charge, might earn a decent run fueled by the burnished baritone of its appealing star, Brian Stokes Mitchell, but it doesn't make a persuasive case for the enduring merits of this sentimental appraisal of Cervantes and his famous tilter-at-windmills.
Kent, the former co-artistic director of London's Almeida Theater, is known for his high-octane, highly theatrical approach to classics such as the Diana Rigg "Medea" and Ralph Fiennes "Hamlet" previously seen on Broadway. His approach here is similarly large-scaled. A thunderous note is struck by Paul Brown's remarkable, and remarkably ugly, set: a huge, enveloping cone of rusty metal that seems constructed of scrap metal scrupulously saved from the sets of the "Mad Max" movies. This contraption, which has more moving parts than a pinball machine, a mighty spiral staircase and one long seam that clangs open and shut to reveal various scene-setting details, is lit with long, searing shards of light, variously colored, by Paul Gallo.
This portentous environment doesn't do any favors for Dale Wasserman's whimsical conflation of the life of Cervantes and the saga of his famous fictional hero, Don Quixote. Wasserman's conception finds the writer awaiting his turn on the rack of the Inquisition, and impersonating the man who imagines himself to be Don Q. to earn the tolerance of the brigands he's sharing a dungeon with. The notion has a definite theatrical charm, but it would glimmer more effectively if the blunt romanticism and blunter comedy of Wasserman's book and Joe Darion's lyrics were not competing with such an overscaled physical production.
Mitchell's performance would also be seen to better effect, I suspect, in a more intimate environment, although his lustrous baritone would compel admiration anywhere. The production enters another sphere altogether when Mitchell is singing the catchy manifestos penned by Darion and composer Mitch Leigh -- that much-recorded anthem about dreaming the you-know-what as well as the lusty title tune. When Mitchell is inviting us in song to share the knight's quest for noble sacrifice, he's persuasive indeed: The robust beauty of this dark-rum voice is enough to keep anyone clinging to the most preposterous of visions.
Mitchell's voice sounds very pretty when he's not singing, too, but therein lies a flaw in his performance. When this Don Quixote does not have a melody at hand, he mostly seems to be giving elocution lessons, with the result that this knight-errant's ardent pontificating at times sounds uncomfortably like the comical pomposities of the well-spoken Dr. Frasier Crane. Mitchell never really successfully brings alive the passion for justice and honor that drives the would-be knight, so his Cervantes and his Don Quixote tend to bleed into each other. Ultimately neither characterization throbs with much dramatic life, so that Wasserman's blunter pronouncements about the nobility of illusions -- "Perhaps to be practical is madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it ought to be" -- seem not to come from the heart of a man but from a self-help book of a certain vintage.
In support, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is a rather dry, contemporary-sounding Aldonza. She also has trouble finding a real emotional pulse in the admittedly contrived character of the ill-treated whore who is finally made to glow with self-worth in the light of the knight's deluded adoration. Her singing is sometimes lovely, sometimes uneven. Ernie Sabella is a shticky Sancho Panza, with such stalwart performers as Stephen Bogardus and Mark Jacoby doing yeoman's work in smaller roles. In general, the production does not succeed in establishing a strong sense of period and place, another reason its unabashed romanticism seems a bit secondhand.
The score certainly contains plenty of appealing melodies, but its accent on Spanish-flavored, guitar-oriented music is not nearly as fresh as it presumably was in 1965, when flamenco shows -- to say nothing of Mexican restaurants -- were not as thick on the ground.
Nevertheless, the score, and indeed the show, has always been a distinct crowd-pleaser, and perhaps in an irony-saturated age it will stir some dormant desires for escaping into a world of comforting fantasy. But time and current events have perhaps dimmed audiences' taste for that pleasure as well. Recent history has shown us all too clearly that living in a dream world can have dangerous consequences.