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A fine Quixote is undermined by a slight Aldonza in Man of La Mancha.

Aldonza (Rachel Warren) brings back that lovin' feelin' for a gang of muleteers.
  • Aldonza (Rachel Warren) brings back that lovin' feelin' for a gang of muleteers.

There is an undeniable appeal to people who pursue impossible dreams. That's why every lounge singer worth his ruffled French cuffs has included "The Impossible Dream" in his act for the last 40 years. The show that spawned that uplifting anthem, Man of La Mancha, is now opening the season at the Cleveland Play House. While many of the songs in this work retain their power to amuse or inspire, a critical casting misfire sabotages the overall effect.

Though it first hit Broadway in 1965, La Mancha remains intriguing, and can still speak to contemporary audiences about the force of individual commitment and self-determination.

Miguel de Cervantes, the novelist and playwright, is thrown in jail with his manservant. In order to rescue his manuscript from his threatening cellmates, Cervantes defends himself in a mock trial by acting out his story of Don Quixote de La Mancha, the mad alter ego of a Spanish nobleman. Dedicated to the dead art of chivalry, Quixote spies a slatternly wench named Aldonza, gives her the more delicate-sounding name Dulcinea, and insists she is his lady of purity.

Although he doesn't seem old or frail enough, the Play House production benefits enormously from the presence of Philip Hernandez as Cervantes/Quixote. His gleaming eyes register the crazy clarity of a man who has "laid down the burden of sanity" in pursuit of bigger prizes.

Whether he's registering childlike joy and innocence -- as when he's dubbed the "Knight of the Woeful Countenance" -- or pious indignation at the wrongs of the world, Hernandez fills every moment with remarkable focus and intelligence. And he delivers his songs with a rich, goose-bump-inflicting baritone.

Hernandez is ably supported by Jamie La Verdiere, who, as Cervantes' manservant, brings us a more wised-up take on the loyal sidekick Sancho. In fact, the whole cast acts each of the songs with precision, never letting the familiar Mitch Leigh melodies overwhelm Joe Darion's clever lyrics. When Quixote appropriates a barber's basin as his "Golden Helmet of Mambrino," the barber tells Sancho, "But he will find out it is not gold/And will not make him bold and brave." To which Sancho sensibly replies, "Well, at least he'll find it useful/If he ever needs a shave."

The major trouble involves Aldonza, a woman who should exude earthy sensuality from every pore (the role was played in the regrettable film by Sophia Loren). Unfortunately, director Amanda Dehnert and casting director Arnold J. Mungioli decided to give slight Rachel Warren this part.

Talented Warren played Eliza Doolittle last year in the Play House production of My Fair Lady, a role she fit perfectly. But despite her yeoman efforts to appear scuzzy and tough, snarling her lyrics with an almost comically curled lip, Warren never overcomes her physical limitations. Aldonza should use her breasts, thighs, and booty to create a male fantasy of bawdy sexual licentiousness. Only then can the contrast between her abused sensuality and Quixote's fragile goodness be realized, making the play resonate as it should.

Make no mistake, Warren sings with pointed emotion, especially in "What Does He Want of Me?" But she does not have the heft to maintain control of her signature song, "Aldonza." She delivers the scorching lines: "Look at this kitchen slut reeking with sweat! . . . A strumpet men use and forget." But she simply looks more like a Dulcinea than an Aldonza, and that sucks much of the doomed grandeur from Quixote's glorious quest.

That aside, director Dehnert's staging of this production offers many treats. Using a black unit set designed by Kris Stone and Lap Chi Chu's dramatic lighting, the intimate Drury Theatre becomes an extension of the dungeon where all the action takes place. Particularly arresting is the startling reveal of a hidden staircase, accompanied by grinding sound effects that send chills down your spine.

Surprisingly, seven of the actors who play supporting roles double as musicians, seamlessly moving out of scenes to take up their instruments, while three permanent musicians remain on an elevated platform.

Missing in this version is any cobbled-together representation of the horses Quixote and Sancho usually ride. And the critical moment when the Knight of Mirrors forces Quixote to face himself seems a bit rushed. But even without a fully ripe Aldonza, this La Mancha still manages to make us long for a little more sweetly inspired lunacy in our world.

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