Nehal Joshi as Sancho and Anthony Warlow as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha,  directed by Alan Paul, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Nehal Joshi as Sancho and Anthony Warlow as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, directed by Alan Paul, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
(© Scott Suchman)

When Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway in 1965, it won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. A new version has just opened at the Shakespeare Theatre Company that makes it clear why the original was so popular: It is a beautifully constructed examination of the familiar battle between idealism and cynicism, staged in a totally unfamiliar way.

Written by Dale Wasserman, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, Man of La Mancha begins in 1594 in a huge holding room of a prison in Seville, Spain, during the Inquisition. An aging Miguel de Cervantes (Anthony Warlow), a failure as a tax collector, playwright, and poet, has been thrown into that dungeon to await trial for having foreclosed on a monastery.

The other prisoners try to take his few possessions, including the incomplete manuscript of his novel, Don Quixote. Cervantes proposes to defend himself in a play: If he "wins," he keeps the manuscript. The prisoners agree. Cervantes puts on makeup and a costume to become the country gentleman Alonso Quixana, who has read so much chivalric literature he believes himself to be a knight errant, Don Quixote.

Accompanied by his manservant, Sancho Panza (Nehal Joshi), Quixote takes off to restore the age of chivalry and to battle evil. Throughout this quest to right all wrong, the other prisoners assume roles of the many people Quixote meets. Sancho Panza sticks loyally by Quixote's side, trying to bring him back to reality.

When Quixote sees what he believes is a castle, Aldonza (Amber Iman), a serving girl, is being propositioned by a gang of muleteers. In a flash of adoration-at-first-sight, Quixote sees her as his ideal lady, Dulcinea.

Warlow is excellent as Cervantes and Don Quixote, both in the way his rich baritone does justice to the musical's most familiar numbers and in his ability to transform himself quickly from Cervantes to Quixana to Quixote. Joshi is delightful as Sancho, at once comic and levelheaded, trying to save his master from pain and embarrassment. Joshi makes "The Missive," "I Really Like Him," and "A Little Gossip" into three of the best numbers in the show. Iman is a powerful performer, and her feisty rendition of "It's All the Same" as she peels the lascivious muleteers' hands off her body is one of the production's high points.

Fourteen actors play a variety of roles, doubling as prisoners and elements of Quixote's dream. Dan Sharkey is particularly good as the Governer, Rayanne Gonzales is equally fine as his wife. Dr. Carrasco and The Duke are portrayed with great gusto by Robert Mammana, while Martín Solá makes a fine, high-strung Padre, and Maria Failla is perfectly cast as Don Quixote's niece, the high spirited Antonia.

STC associate artistic director Alan Paul directs this Man of La Mancha intelligently, making sure that the triple layers of imagination in this play-within-a-play don't get confused with one another. His decision to keep all the actors onstage even when they are not acting affords a subtle reminder of the prison-cell frame of the story.

Allen Moyer's scenic design fills the cavernous proscenium stage with a massive metal grid for the prison and a walkway above. Periodically, a metal ramp is lowered to connect the walkway to the prison below. Robert Wierzel's lighting design creates a wide variety of moods, and even a major set piece…a spectacular windmill for Quixote to battle. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes evolve to fit the story, beginning with a pale yellow tunic for Cervantes, which is covered with a coat of black mail and a bright golden cape for Quixana/Quixote. The prisoners are dressed in rags, with details (mantillas for the aunt and niece, a cross for the padre) added as needed, to embellish their secondary roles. Choreographer Marcos Santana keeps the action flowing effortlessly, using effective bursts of Spanish dancing (Arielle Rosales, flamenco specialist) to heighten the mood.

Man of La Mancha is an extraordinary American musical, in its complexity and its willingness to address the importance of dreams. This La Mancha emphasizes that complexity and demonstrates the power of fantasy and the uses of imagination in every aspect of this production.