Daze and knight at Bristol Riverside

By Michael Elkin, correspondent for Bucks County Courier Times

Don Quixote for presidente?

In this chaotic presidential political season of improbable candidates and impossible dreams — or nagging nightmares, depending on your point of view — who better to issue a clarion call to righteous rewards as channeled through madness than a knighterrant on a quixotic quest to better mankind?

Let others feel the Bern or make America great again, this Don has his own sweet slogan of success, honed steadily aboard a frail steed carrying him to wherever his limited stamina allows: “To Each his Dulcinea” is bumpersticker — or saddle — perfect.

Quixote, a gaggle of loose limbs and disjointed thoughts, continues his quirky campaign, going fulltilt bringing “Man of La Mancha” to the Bristol Riverside Theatre through June 5.

Based on “Don Quixote,” by Miguel de Cervantes, whose work of fiction penned during Spain’s Siglo de Oro remains the gold standard of Western European literature, the onstage adaptation — a fivetime 1965 Tony Award winner — has its own place in the pantheon of panjandrums: “I, Don Quixote” is the musical theater equivalent of “I am Spartacus,” a shoutout of stirring independence and damntheworld
declaration of soul over obstacle. Set in a dungeon of black despair and desperate deals (with a knockout set by Roman Tatarowicz), Cervantes serves up his literary character to save his manuscript from certain destruction by his fellow prisoners as all await their fate to ascend a long staircase to hell at the beck and call of the Inquisition.

In a moment of madness, Cervantes acts out Quixote’s story with the inmates taking their own roles, forsaking the imminent wicked encounters with the Inquisition for the woeful countenance that is the knight in somewhat less-than-shining armor.

“Man of La Mancha” has been a keeper for producers worldwide interested in showcasing a mix of art and commerce in this story of a madman with more insight into the human condition than Don Draper. Revived on Broadway a number of times since Richard Kiley originally led the charge of moral rectitude to restore a world tipped off its axis, “Man of La Mancha” has proved to be a man for all seasons for regional theaters as well.

But there are artistic potholes aplenty awaiting any group attempting this intricate, elaborate musical interwoven with dark humor and the blackest of truths. Has BRT gone mad attempting to take on such a challenging vehicle that asks audiences to swerve on an intellectual level between reality and illusion? Yes, but with good reason and sound reasoning: They have the resources — and talent, especially with direction by Keith Baker — to win the knight.

The score by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion is one of American musical theater’s richest, and Dale Wasserman’s freestyle adaptation of Cervantes is an incredible invention on its own. The men and women of this “La Mancha” production play it for all its paella.

Not that there aren’t problems. Robert Newman is perfect when it comes to portraying the author who must win back his manuscript from the prisoners or face the ultimate penalty. He serves the iconic figure of Cervantes stolidly and passionately, his power expressed through a strong, urgently beautiful voice. But … his transformation into Quixote is more quixotic than a success, lacking the surreal surprise that is Quixote’s every expression and thought. The classic image of the willowy and woefully looselimbed warrior gets some short shrift here.

It doesn’t help either that the wig the the actor dons is more Dee Snyder than de La Mancha, making him seem more heavy metal than the armor he must wear.

But the minions of “La Mancha” double down in their efforts, well worth the doubloons they earn for their energetic and talented prowess. Tamra Hayden is a splendid Dulcinea — and guttersnipegreat as her alter ego, Aldonza, who gets down and dirty in debasing others almost as much as she debases herself.

Dwayne Thomas’ performance is wonderfully in keeping with the innkeeper’s job of host and bouncer; he puts out the welcome mat graciously and comically in “The Dubbing” number. And Robert Farruggia fares among the best as the Padre, whose graceful, glorious voice would attract any parishioner to his confessional.

Danny Rutigliano is the ultimate sidekick, second to none as Sancho Panza, whose attraction to serving Quixote is, well, because “I like him.” The audience liked Rutigliano, too. A lot.

The story is over 400 years old, but timeless in its teachings. Retired Stanford University Business School professor Jim March marveled at the Quixote legacy and made a movie about it in 2003: In “Passion and Discipline: Don Quixote’s Lessons for Leadership,” he noted that “We live in a world that emphasizes realistic expectations and clear successes. Quixote had neither. But through failure after failure, he persists in his vision and his commitment. He persists because he knows who he is.”

Of course. “I am I, Don Quixote,” he intones valiantly, heroically, onstage at BRT these days. Biggest surprise of all: Just who knew there were such wonderful windmills in Bristol?