Brian Stokes Mitchell (r) and Ernie Sabellain Man of La Mancha(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Brian Stokes Mitchell (r) and Ernie Sabella
in Man of La Mancha
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
When was the last time you saw a Broadway performer stand alone, center stage, and sing a song that stopped a show? These days, a big production number can stop a show -- but a solo?

An impossible dream, you say? Exactly. When Brian Stokes Mitchell as Don Quixote hits the last, long note of "The Impossible Dream" in the revival of Man of La Mancha that opened last night at the Martin Beck Theatre, the audience can no longer contain itself; spontaneous applause erupts and becomes a cacophony as Mitchell brings the song to its triumphant end. Afterwards, the applause goes on and on. Welcome to musical theater heaven.

If your only experience of Man of La Mancha was the Raul Julia/Sheena Easton revival that appeared on Broadway in 1992, you haven't really seen the show. If you caught the original 1965 production with Richard Kiley (or his return engagement in 1977), you know that La Mancha can be heart stopping, as it is in the present revival; but it's not the same show it once was. This is the first freshly conceived version of the musical to come to Broadway. All of the songs are here but the book has been trimmed. The show now runs slightly more than two hours, without an intermission.

Nothing essential has been omitted from Dale Wasserman's inspiring book. The musical's story, based on the timeless Cervantes novel, has not been changed, only streamlined to move us more quickly from song to song in the justifiably famous Mitch Leigh-Joe Darion score. The action begins with Cervantes thrown into prison preparatory to being brought before the judges of the Spanish Inquisition. In order to save his manuscript of Don Quixote, which his fellow prisoners threaten to burn, he acts out the story he's written with support from the others.

The plot-within-the-plot concerns an aging country gentleman (Mitchell) who deludes himself into thinking he's the knight Don Quixote -- no matter that the age of knighthood ended three hundred years earlier. The gent and his squire, Sancho (Ernie Sabella) set off on a quest. In their travels, they come to an inn that "Quixote" sees in his mind's eye as a castle. Here he discovers the whore Aldonza (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whom he immediately envisions as his lady Dulcinea. She scoffs at his madness but Quixote refuses to see her any other way, and his sincerity threatens to break through her emotional armor. The greatest villain of the piece -- and there are a few -- is Dr. Carrasco (Stephen Bogardus), who is to marry our deluded hero's niece, Antonia, and eventually become heir to her uncle's estate. A man of science, Carrasco insists that he will put an end to the old man's madness. All that Don Quixote has as a weapon against a rapacious world is his belief that evil should be fought and that good, honest people deserve his protection. Of course, everyone thinks him a fool.

Only one song from Man of La Mancha became a popular hit outside of the show: "The Impossible Dream." But this is one of the most extraordinary scores in the history of musical theater. From the stirring title tune (also known as "I, Don Quixote") to the bitter and biting "Aldonza," the music has the power to excite and the lyrics have an edge that cuts to the heart. There is comic pomp in "Golden Helmet of Mambrino," witty satire in "I'm Only Thinking of Him," beguiling romanticism in "Dulcinea" -- and that's not even the half of it. No wonder the show has been revised so as to highlight the exquisite score in this revival.

The glories of the production are threefold. First, scenic designer Paul Brown has created a stupendous set that is, at once, as claustrophobic as a prison and as expansive as a mountain range. (You'll understand what we mean when you see the show.) More than that, the set manages to viscerally convey many of the story's most important emotions and themes. When it moves or is used to create sound effects, it's as ominous as a death threat; yet, at the end of the show, it allows the stage action to become nothing short of metaphysical.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonioin Man of La Mancha(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
in Man of La Mancha
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Second, Jonathan Kent's fast-paced and creative direction is electrifying. He has reinvented Man of La Mancha without losing the emotional focus of the piece. In fact, he has sharpened that focus by tightening the story and letting the score drive the narrative. Finally, the performance of Brian Stokes Mitchell as Cervantes/Don Quixote brings honor to the stage. He has the acting chops to play the old man with both dignity and humor, while his soaring, manly baritone lends authority and -- dare we say it? -- heroism to the fragile protagonist. Richard Kiley gave a legendary performance as Quixote; Mitchell's characterization is in the same mold. Praise cannot come higher than that.

As Aldonza/Dulcinea, the striking and statuesque Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio works diligently, but her voice is not reliable enough for this demanding role. She tries to make up for her vocal deficiencies with her acting but sometimes tries too hard, and she seems too modern a presence for a story that takes place several hundred years ago. (Having said that, she's still miles better than Sheena Easton was in this part.) Ernie Sabella's Sancho is engaging and endearing; wisely, he doesn't ham it up. Mark Jacoby is winningly sympathetic in the role of the padre, though his lovely voice lacks the weight that would have added much to his rendition of the insightful song "To Each His Dulcinea." So, too, Don Mayo's acting is more effective than his singing. But the fierce Stephen Bogardus is exceptionally well cast in the dual role of Cervantes' prison adversary (called "the Duke") and Quixote's nemesis, Carrasco. As Antonia, Natascia Diaz displays a beautiful voice, and the muleteers dance Luis Perez's inventive choreography with testosterone to spare.

By all means, bring your young and impressionable sons and daughters to Man of La Mancha. This is the kind of theater that can change the course of someone's life. It can instill unshakeable idealism, create a moral compass, or -- if nothing else -- establish a lifelong love affair with musical theater.