The mettle test, then, for Castaways Repertory Theatre is whether it can sell that song, dripping with optimism, nearly a half-century later to audiences who may identify more with the elevator version than the staunch creed. Although this Man of La Mancha is not ideal, Jim Mitchell (Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote) does deliver the signature hymn with a regal baritone and faraway aspect.
Castaways truly embraces its community with its cast ranging from high school freshmen to one vitalic nonagenarian. These troupers present the parable of Don Quixote — that gallant, geriatric, “loco” visionary who stands among the most iconic figures in literature — reverently, in church-pageant fashion. If you can get past the venue’s school-gym bouquet of sweat and varnish, the orchestra’s halting cadence and some woeful, drill-team-style choreography, you’ll cash in with a few refreshing nuggets of not-wholly fool’s gold.
For those in need of a refresher: The Tony-crowned 1965 Man of La Mancha, composed by Mitch Leigh with book by Dale Wasserman and lyrics by Joe Darion, is set in a Seville dungeon amid the Spanish Inquisition. Poet/playwright detainee Cervantes, nervously awaiting his hearing for heresy, regales and recruits prison lowlifes in an uplifting tale of the beloved knight errant and his garrulous sidekick, Sancho Panza. It’s an improvisational play-within-a-play that plumbs as deep as a funhouse mirror: Cervantes doubles as his protagonist, the half-baked Alonso Quijana then layers delusion upon fiction as Don Quixote, who famously tilts at windmills (giants) and lends a tavern wench (prostitute) the trappings of a noblewoman. Quijana’s worried niece — worried mostly about her inheritance — enlists her doctor-fiancé to cure her uncle’s dementia. That cure, forcing Quixote to face reality in the form of yet another deception, dressing up as the antagonistic Knight of Mirrors, prophetically proves worse than the disease.
In essence, the title character plays three roles — four, if you count the unseen creator Cervantes, who toiled over his epic satirical novel not during the Spanish Inquisition but in a 16th-century debtors’ prison. The work became his ticket out of that jam, just as theater releases us all from real-world constraints.
Quite a lot of legend to heap upon Mitchell and company. One can’t fail to see a little Don Quixote in each committed player but most notably in 93-year-old Jack Hopkins, who plays Padre Perez with unflinching gusto. His golden-throated tenor occasionally falters and he relies on a hymnal prop as a prompter, but his plucky performance is guaranteed to slay any nay-sayers. Costumed as a South Beach snowbird, except in black — black tunic, black knickers, black knee socks, camel sandals — he matches an array of villainous males also in simple killer black, from rascally muleteers to Dr. Carrasco, whom impeccable thespian Rich Amada plays nimbly down to his spindly fingertips.
Other standout players: Justin Janke as Pedro and Brooke Angel as serving girl Fermina. From the opening, these ‘up-and-comers’ breathed life onstage with every posture and piece of background “business,” and there all the honor lies. Another classical nod: Properties Mistress Pat Jannell, well-groomed as a Horse, presents a whimsical trunkful of toys for the players to rifle through in the vein of El Gallo or Peter Quince props.
Director Zina Bleck masterfully wrangles her roustabout muleteers— a suavecito posse fresh from charm school including triple-threat Andrew Reid; showman Scott Morgan who also produced giggles as the Barber and a Horse; physical comic Roger Yawson; and the do-no-wrong Janke. But Bleck’s hallmark is Aldonza’s disarming rape scene, conducted mostly offstage. First the lean, boyish Janke must transform into a menacing machismo monster— done. Then Angel’s Fermina conveys horror with empathetic screams until she lingers, alone, for a chilling “Little Bird, Little Bird” refrain. Haunting.
Witty Jonathan Faircloth makes feel-good manservant Sancho into a rowdy, joyful jester with extra slabs of buttery song. When he lights the stage, smiles and laughter abound. Though not a gifted singer, Brian Miller (Governor/Innkeeper) douses lines with lyricism. Cambria Ungaro (niece Antonia) has potential to be a powerhouse with more vocal training but for now delivers an alluring slithering gypsy. Housekeeper Nora Zanger convulses with blond ambition. Together, Ungaro and Zanger become stepsisters to Aerika Saxe’s princess-pop diva impression of Aldonza/Dulcinea. Her attitude’s all there, but Saxe’s dulcet tones deceive. Vein-popping rage is what needs to ground the earthy Aldonza; Saxe mostly floats, though she eventually rips open some grit for her second-act, self-titled aria. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s lulling vocal style, though solid, lacks a degree of verve needed to inspire.
His armor (costuming by Bleck) is more loony a la Spamalot than lunatic; Sancho even gallops per Spamalot’s coconut trick. Faircloth’s lavalier mic is so obtrusive it resembles a breathing apparatus on a hospital patient. Most disappointing is accepting our fallen knight simply slumped, catatonic, in a chair. And poor Padre, kneeling through the climactic penultimate scene. (Quixote’s line “On thy knees, to me?!” is directed to Aldonza, yet we feel Hopkins’ pain).
Still, tilting at windmills is what makes for entertaining theater — and lest this critic act as an evil Knight of Mirrors and hold people up to too much inquisition, let’s just say: This never-say-die cast “still strove with its last ounce of courage.” A noble effort.
Running Time: About two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Man of La Mancha plays through May 19, 2013 at the Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo Building (across from the cop shop) – 15941 Donald Curtis Drive, in Woodbridge, VA. For tickets, call 703-232-1710, or purchase them online.