Last night the touring company of Man of La Mancha came to Athens, and PJ and I went to see it. Man of La Mancha is one of my favorite musicals, so I was excited to have the chance to see it. La Mancha doesn’t get the acclaim of such musicals as Gypsy, West Side Story, or My Fair Lady, especially among gay men. But I love it.

Man of La ManchaThe touring company production was pretty good, but I’m not a fair critic — I’m as irrational in my love for Don Quixote de la Mancha, Aldonza, and Sancho Panza as I am in my love for Luke, Leia, and Darth Vader. Like Star Wars, La Mancha was one of my childhood obsessions.

In junior high, I was in drama — or “theater arts,” as it was called. In 9th grade, our teacher, Mrs. Stansbury, decided that a non-musical version of Man of La Mancha would be the one-act play we would perform for the spring season. I was assigned the part of Dr. Carrasco.

In order to get us ready for our parts, she lent some of us her soundtrack of the original cast recording, which not only had all of the songs but most of the dialogue too. I immediately fell in love with it, and so I taped it so that I could have my own copy, which I listened to practically non-stop for years. (Unfortunately, due to various issues concerning the annual junior high drama competition we participated in, we ended up not doing a play at all that year.)

I was particularly drawn to the play’s exploration — if that’s not too strong a word — of reality vs. idealism, of life as it is vs. life as it ought to be, of whether it’s madness to accept life as it is (a “dung heap,” as Aldonza calls it) or to make your own world through imagination. Now, I’m not saying that we should all go crazy and pretend to be Medieval knights, but clearly this is a musical about the theater — the role of theater in a society of gender and class inequity and oppression. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this work participates in the same discussions of the role of theater in society raised by such scholars as Martin Esslin and W. B. Worthen.

And let’s face it: what budding 13-year-old homosexual wouldn’t fall in love with Aldonza, the hardened prostitute with a heart of gold?!

Overall, I thought that the touring production was pretty good. The set was impressive enough for a travelling show, and none of the actors was terrible or anything like that — PJ and I agree that the same could not be said for the touring company of Porgy and Bess a couple of years ago.

But it was also probably impossible for the company to live up to my 13-year-old imagination. I thought Aldonza should be much more sexual — so much of her income is based on what she makes through prostitution. It seems to me, then, that she would want to entice the muleteers to paying her fee even though she simultaneously hates men. It’s this conflict that makes her character interesting — she’s hardened and hates men, but also needs men to survive, making her hate them all the more. It’s also important that we see her transition from whore to non-whore, if that’s what she is by the end. I’m not sure this production really captured that transition — she just changes after hearing Don Quixote sing “The Impossible Dream.”

I also thought that the actor playing Don Quixote was a little weak in spots. His singing voice, in particular, seemed overwhelmed by the other actors if they sang together. But this may have been due to some technical problems with the microphones — there were a couple of parts where it didn’t sound like everyone’s mike was on.

And my usual complaint about staging also applies to this production: I can’t stand it when actors just seem to mill around the stage between speaking lines. I thought the actress playing Aldonza especially needed more direction.

But having said all of that, I loved seeing it. It was all I could do not to sing along and recite all the lines in tandem with the actors. I love this play’s combination of realism and idealism. Aldonza is the theater diva we gay men should love — maybe I should go as her next year for Halloween!

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