It’s been 33 seasons – half the troupe’s existence – since the Arlington Players staged “Man of La Mancha,” and the opening production of the 2016-17 season proved worth the wait.
Strong leads, solid singing voices and a visually appealing set spell success for the show, which runs (as did the 1965 Broadway original) two hours with no intermission.
Set in a Spanish dungeon during the time of the Inquisition, the play-within-a-play (or musical-within-a-play, more appropriately) takes much from, but is hardly a literal adaptation of, Miguel Cervantes’ 17th-century “Don Quixote.” It’s the show that gave musical theater one of its standards – “The Impossible Dream” – and has more hits than misses in its nearly 20 musical numbers.
Studying the youngish, everyman face of actor Hans Dettmar as the show begins, it’s an open question whether he can transform himself into the older, hopelessly idealistic and perhaps more than slightly “touched” Quixote, whose tilting at windmills inspired an expression that has lasted the centuries.
But Dettmar, through a visually expressive face and eyes, plus wonderful makeup, pulls it off to help carry the show’s mix of humor and pathos, with Quixote accompanied by his ever faithful and ever suffering squire Sancho Panza (Micky Goldstein).
Melanie Jennings-Bales rounds out the trifecta of leads with a robust performance as the bawdy trollop of the local inn, transformed in Quixote’s fertile imagination to the beautiful and virginal Dulcinea. And as the villain of the evening, or maybe simply the voice of sanity, Garrett Matthews proves solid as the foil to Dettmar’s Cervantes/Quixote.
The secondary cast is equally adept. Color me an instant fan of Ivana Alexander, who portrayed the prisoners’ leader in the dungeon and, in the tales told by Cervantes, as the innkeeper who dubs Quixote a knight. She made the most of her spotlight time.
Not every audience member is up to the challenge of 120 minutes sans intermission (ushers were up-front about the situation when the audience filed in), but there is no convenient place to cut it in two acts without seriously impacting the momentum. Director Clare Shaffer (who doubled as choreographer) kept the pace moving, and was aided by a stunning set (Jared Davis). Sound (Drew Moberley) was strong and showcased solid singing voices.
Led by Paige Rammelkamp, the 14-member orchestra was robust and added immeasurably to the overall experience.
Quibbles? A few audience members didn’t appreciate the show’s low lighting, but dungeons aren’t known for their brightness and warmth, are they? And if you like your Broadway musicals to end on a rousing upbeat note, well, “Man of La Mancha” isn’t a show that brings out an Ethel Merman-esque belter to finish off the proceedings. The ending is effective, but somewhat subdued.
As an aside, the production playbill showcases memories of the troupe’s 1983 rendition of “La Mancha,” and honors the memory of the director and two of the lead actors in that performance who have passed to the Great White Way in the Sky. It’s a nice nod to the past as the Arlington Players embarks upon its 66th season, which also will include “The Lion in Winter” and “She Loves Me.” (At $60 for all three shows, a season ticket is a veritable steal.)
“The Man of La Mancha” runs through Oct. 8 at Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre. For tickets and information, see the Web site at www.thearlingtonplayers.org.