Riverside Theatre has just opened its first show of 2023 and Man of La Mancha is already a hit. The musical is loosely based on Miguel de Cervantes 17th century masterpiece about Don Quixote, a fictional man who refuses to accept life as it is when he can pursue his impossible dream of the more exciting life he imagines. It is a most appropriate season opener for the 50th anniversary of Riverside after several interrupted years when it seemed a normal theater season itself was an impossible dream during COVID.
Man of La Mancha began life as a non-musical play written for CBS network television back in 1959 with the role of Don Quixote played by Lee J. Cobb. It was transformed into an off-Broadway musical in 1965, then moved to the Great White Way for 2,328 performances and five Tony Awards starring Richard Kiley, who went on to become an international star. Since then an honor role of actors has played the lead, including Peter O’Toole, Kelsey Grammar, Raul Julia and Robert Goulet.
The story is about a failed author and, believe it or not, tax collector, imprisoned during the depths of the Spanish Inquisition because he foreclosed on a monastery (and apparently never paid back his book advance). His name is also Miguel de Cervantes, thrown into prison with his manservant.
In a twist on the One Thousand and One Nights tale, he offers to convince his fellow prisoners not to steal a chest he brought with him by weaving a fanciful story about Don Quixote, a knight-errant seeking adventure with his sidekick, Sancho Panza. He transforms himself from the everyman Cervantes into the fantasy knight Don Quixote taking simple makeup from that chest and using props lying around the prison.
They embark on a quest where Quixote encounters commonplace situations that he re-interprets as crises requiring chivalrous actions on his part. His sidekick tries to tell him what is really happening in those situations but Quixote ignores those realities, choosing to believe his own fantasies. Sancho ultimately goes along with these fantasies because, as the song explains, “I really like him.”
His most famous challenge occurs when he charges a windmill/four-armed giant and ends up bruised but convinced he won the battle. The show follows him through a series of escapades ending up at a shoddy inn that he decides is really a castle, in which an innkeeper/lord has the authority to dub him a knight and complete his quest. In the process he meets a serving wench and part-time prostitute, Aldonza, who he insists is Dulcinea, the fair maiden of his dreams.
This story of Don Quixote seems at times to convince the other prisoners not to steal from Cervantes, but does it really matter when Cervantes’ tale is finally completed and soldiers come to haul him off to an Inquisition trial? You will have to wait to learn how this story plays out and enjoy the ride by seeing Man of La Mancha for yourself.
The performances, both acting and singing, are outstanding. Edward Staudenmayer commands the stage as Cervantes/Quixote, whether speaking or singing. Tony Chiroldes is convincing and relatable as Sancho, who tries to convince Quixote what is realistically happening, while at the same time enjoying his part in Quixote’s fantasies. Lianne Marie Dobbs is superb as the down-and-out Aldonza, who must endure brutal treatment by her fellow male prisoners that feed into her damaged feelings of self-worth. Quixote sees only good in her which she continually rejects until his persistence pays off and she eventually becomes Dulcinea.
Each character in this performance is played to perfection by the 20-member cast of professionals. As always, the musicians are top notch and the principal song of the show, “The Impossible Dream,” is a long-time standard that you will not get out of your head for days after hearing it sung with such earnest intensity by the talented cast.
The set design itself is remarkable. It is the floor of a dungeon with a suspended staircase lowered to the stage floor with dramatic sound effects at key times in the show. Yet, by simply adding a few props, the audience is taken out of the dungeon and into an inn/palace, church confessional, and even a fantasy sequence with smoke and mirrored knights led by a towering Dr. Carrasco who sounds remarkably like Darth Vader, played to the hilt of his sword by a delightful Derrick Davis.
This is a must see show whether you are a regular theater fan or would like to become one. You will not see finer performances anywhere. Riverside Theatre is the not-so-hidden gem of big city-quality entertainment on the Treasure Coast.
Man of La Mancha is playing on Riverside Theatre’s Stark Stage until January 22. Ticket prices start at $45. Call the Box Office at (772) 231-6990 or go online to riversidetheatre.com. The theatre is located at 3250 Riverside Park Drive.