Onward to Glory?

Rufus Bonds, Jr in 'Man of La Mancha.' Photo by Mark Kitaoka

There’s a moment in Man of La Mancha, the 1965 musical-theatre riff on the 17th-century novel Don Quixote, when you as a viewer have to decide: Is the lead character frustratingly crazy or a beautiful idealist?

This 5th Avenue Theatre production, directed by Allison Narver, zips Man of La Mancha forward in time from the Spanish Inquisition to an imposing, Guantanamo-type prison, manned by gun-wielding soldiers. There is something undeniably uplifting about this “triumph of the human spirit” story about a sentimental man, worn down by the oppression of life, who sees beauty in the bleakest places and chooses joy when faced with torment. Imagination as survival tactic. But while the show is thoughtfully directed and beautifully sung, the update just doesn’t gel.

Mancha’s nesting doll storylines go something like this: Miguel de Cervantes and his compatriot are thrown in jail for trying to foreclose on a church. To appease the dangerous characters there, Cervantes, an actor/tax collector (#sidehustle), launches into the tale of Alonso Quijana, a simple man who “lay down the melancholy burden of sanity” and abandons his life as a country squire to live as a knight errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha. Aided by his companion Sancho, Quixote sets out to right the world’s wrongs, tilts at windmills and falls in love with a barmaid named Aldonza, whom he insists is a noblewoman named Dulcinea. Meanwhile, Quijana’s family worries he’s losing his mind. All this plays out inside high prison walls (an imposing set by Matthew Smucker) ringed in concertina wire.

It’s not that the concept itself doesn’t work. It’s that it’s not fully executed. At its core Man of La Mancha is a mawkish musical, and for it to land without being chokingly saccharine, the world in which it lives needs to be terrifying. The light can’t be light if the dark isn’t dark.

With this many shows within a show, suspension of disbelief is key. We’re at a black site, but you’re allowed to bring your costume box and the guards are pretty chill—they don’t push, and if someone yells your name as you’re led away, they let you chat until you’re ready to trudge off to “the Inquisition.” For my money, there is nothing funnier than the faux-menace of a musical theatre gang, in any show, ever—though there is one pivotal scene in this show, craftily staged with flashes of blackout, that is genuinely chilling, and kudos to Narver for making it so. 

The show has all the trappings of a feminist nightmare: a male savior who literally refuses to call a woman by her name, the hooker with a heart of gold, rape as a plot device, female purity as moral zenith. But Nova Payton, with a voice like a shooting star, brings such a self-possessed steely core to her character that she doesn’t read like the victim/object of male validation that Aldonza is. No small feat.

Also of note: basically everyone. Don Darryl Rivera is a Sancho with flawless comic timing, dancer Jade Solomon Curtis has a star turn that is glorious to behold, and the smaller roles and ensemble—especially Nick DeSantis, Allen Fitzpatrick, Brandon O’Neill and Eric Ankrim—is an embarrassment of vocal riches.

Carrying the weight of the show on his shabbily-clad shoulders is Rufus Bonds, Jr., a veteran of New York and London stages. Bonds is a charismatic performer, but his Quixote was so self-consciously silly that I kept wondering whether he had answered that first question himself. Is Quixote a doddering fool or the only sane one among us?

The 5th Avenue just upgraded its sound system, and not a moment too soon. The new one sounds fantastic but still needs some breaking-in on proper usage. Most of the cast sounded crisp and clear, but Bonds was so over-amplified that you could hear every loud nasal inhale, and his last booming note on “The Impossible Dream” was painfully loud.

Man of La Mancha (book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion) was novel when it opened in New York in 1965—Broadway audiences weren’t used to seeing anything less than sunny, let alone witness rape and oppression on stage. But now it’s a chestnut to be trotted out whenever someone feels like commenting on the dismal state of our country through song. (Having “The Impossible Dream,” one of the most performed male songs in the musical theatre canon doesn’t hurt, and sue me, hearing the melody to “Dulcinea,” even as orchestral filigree in the background, gives me chills.)

Even so, I can’t stomach that in a 2016 prison camp, we’re reinforcing the idea that fighting injustice, clear-eyed and head-on, is an act of cynicism, not optimism. We should all be “willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause” (sue me again, but I love that sappy lyric), but the idea that we should likewise “select from life what pleases us” is a mixed message that doesn’t jive with modern sensibility. It might be the idea that we want, but it is not the idea that we need.