THEATER REVIEW : A Quixotic Quest for Cervantes' Quixote : PCPA's production of 'Man of La Mancha' lacks inspiration and goes downhill from there.


Don Quixote's dream may never have seemed more impossible than it did last weekend, when PCPA Theaterfest launched its curiously lackluster production of "Man of La Mancha."

It's hard to believe that this popular Dale Wasserman musical adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' classic story could be anything less than inspirational, yet that's precisely the quality that seems to have eluded director James Edmondson's staging.

And without it, there's not much to enlist our sympathy for Cervantes' would-be knight-errant trying to keep chivalry alive in a cynical age.

Far from conveying a romantic figure, Jonathan Gillard Daly's performance in the title role hits an unvarying note of wide-eyed testiness. Two decades too young for Quixote, he's an overly hale and hearty presence that captures the eccentricity but not the old man's frailty. As a result, it's hard to understand the loyalty of his few friends (Edward M. Barker's Sancho Panza and Nova Cunningham's Aldonza).

Just as problematic, the role's singing requirements lie uncomfortably outside Daly's range. Without assistance from much-needed amplification, even his most impassioned declarations--"I, Don Quixote," "Dulcinea" and even "The Impossible Dream"--dissipate like wisps of smoke in the starry night of the outdoor Solvang Festival Theatre.

That the words are even audible is small consolation--Dirk Mahabir's sound engineering proves equally unflattering to the musical accompaniment. Instead of a rich sonic flourish, Mitch Leigh's score seems tinny and muted, as if it's being piped in from a transistor radio.

Disappointing, since the show gets off to a promising start with the historical prologue introducing Daly in his far more successful alternate role as the imprisoned Cervantes facing interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition.

Ilana Radin's dungeon set and Marcia Rodriguez's tattered costumes set a suitably oppressive atmosphere for Cervantes' mock trial by his fellow prisoners. His inspired defense is to enlist these murderers, harlots and thieves as actors to stage his fictional story of Quixote, to prove the value of the manuscript they threaten to destroy.

But the prisoners' characters don't really change when they take on their new roles, and they don't seem much transformed by their experience in the end--another missed opportunity. In treating this framing story as simply a structuring device, the production never illuminates its true significance as an embodiment of one of playwright Wasserman's recurring themes--that social outcasts have more potential for growth and redemption than those with a stake in the status quo.


* WHAT: "Man of La Mancha."

* WHEN: In Solvang: through July 23, Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:30; in Santa Maria: July 28 to August 13, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

* WHERE: In Solvang: Solvang Festival Theatre, 420 2nd St.; in Santa Maria: Marian Theatre, 800 S. College Dr.

* HOW MUCH: $12 to $18.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call (800) 549-PCPA.

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