Valiantly decrepit in a scruffy gray wig and beard, Robert J. Townsend stars in Man of La Mancha, presented by San Diego Musical Theatre, as both the legendary Spanish author Miguel Cervantes and his bumbling character Don Quixote, the demented knight who fights for justice, chivalry, and love in his own mind.
As Cervantes, Townsend is a smooth negotiator and storyteller in a dungeon as he waits for trial by the Spanish Inquisition. He is charged as a heretic and begs his fellow prisoners not to burn his few possessions and manuscript. In exchange, he tells a wild tale, with prisoners taking on the roles.
As the unhinged Quixote, an inn becomes a castle, a windmill is a giant, and he imagines a tattered barmaid as a beauty. He brings joyful optimism when singing the musical’s enduring song “The Impossible Dream.” A nimble and diverse cast and director Scott Thompson give the scenes contemporary relevance as prisoners may be seen as migrants and refugees.
While there are no metallic solar blankets, huddled prisoners wait for their captors to lower a flight of steps into a darkened pit and drag out unlucky souls. Watching the steps being lowered is chilling. Lighting designer Michelle Miles casts ominous purple and blue shadows over them, and the love story themes are just as menancing.
Don Quixote was required reading in high school. Teachers told us it was one of the funniest and most tragic books ever written. We remember the old knight fighting windmills with his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, as they travel through sixteenth-century Spain. Experiencing the tale on stage is especially vivid.
Jeffrey Landman is the adoring sidekick, and his Sancho does his best to revive the old comic lines. There are moments when you’d swear the actor Jon Cryer (from the TV comedy “Two and a Half Men”) jumped on stage, because he sparkles with a few good chuckles.
But there are too few comic mix ups to balance the depressing scenes in this staging. While it feels wrong to laugh at an old man attacking a windmill, that familiar image is left out here. Instead, the tavern scene is especially cruel. Beer swigging gang members grope and berate Dulcinea, a tavern worker and prostitute who has never experienced kindness.
Heidi Meyer has a feisty, full-voiced presence as Dulcinea, and her song “It’s All the Same” with the Muleteers is a highlight out of more than 20 Spanish-infused scenes. She doesn’t appreciate the romantic crazy guy stalking her, until after the rape dance.
The simulated gang rape involves men hoisted up and down, which explains the “no children” advisory, and it’s grim to see her wobbling, badly beaten with a black eye. The scene was scary in the 1960s and is even more relevant now.
Don Le Master directs the score by Mitch Leigh with perfection. If only he and the splendid orchestra weren’t hidden in the rafters. Along with windmills, we miss seeing musicians that fuel the show’s themes of goodness and violence. While the Horton Grand Theatre stage is small, we all wish to hear and catch a glimpse of guitarist Nico Hueso, even in shadow.
Aside from the believable romantic ramblings and “The Impossible Dream” delivered by Townsend, and the visceral #Metoo reminders by Meyer, the most memorable and uplifting parts of this revival are exotic Moorish dancers and two expressive hoof-tapping mule dancers; they help us forget the serious stuff.