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Marvelous 'La Mancha' 

Studio Connections scores with a passionate version of the Cervantes classic

Studio Connections will soon be moving to a new home, and the da Vinci Players have clearly decided to close out their time at the eastside St. Matthew's Episcopal Church with a bang: Man of La Mancha is the most ambitious production the company has mounted in some time, and it is gritty, passionate and ultimately moving.

Man of La Mancha refers both to the literary character of Don Quixote and to his real-life creator, the early-17th-century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. In the musical—an award-winning Broadway hit in 1965—both the author and his imaginary knight use fantasy to combat the darkness they see in the world around them.

That world seems pretty dark as the show begins. The setting is a dungeon where Cervantes and his servant have just been thrown by the Spanish Inquisition. Designed by Studio Connections regular Samantha Cormier, the set is crowded with dingy boxes and shadowy corners, all of which quickly fill with foul-tempered prison rabble.

Director Robert Encila allows his large ensemble to shine, even during the overture. Instead of just milling about the stage as an undifferentiated group, each chorus member is an individual character with a personality and something to do—whether it's an adult gambling or wooing, or a child turning up her nose at dinner—creating a richly detailed and engaging opening tableau.

When Cervantes, a penniless actor/poet/soldier/tax collector, is deposited into this mob, the other prisoners immediately begin to claim his belongings for themselves. Pleading to maintain possession of the precious, handwritten manuscript of his novel, Cervantes, played by the brilliant Kit Runge, defends himself by getting the other prisoners to enact the story he has created.

This play-within-a-play conceit was a brilliant stroke by Dale Wasserman (script), Joe Darion (lyrics) and Mitch Leigh (music); it allows the imagination to fill in many of the details in Cervantes' sprawling tale.

Where the story calls for horses, Cervantes pulls two beautifully rendered masks from his trunk and places them onto children who are wearing tap shoes. As Cervantes begins to weave his spell, Runge brushes white makeup into his hair and beard, becoming Quixote before our eyes. It's hard to explain the wonder of such a simple gesture, other than to say it's an act of pure theater.

Runge is a pleasure to watch. His tall, slender frame is, of course, well-suited to the character, but he also captures both the bravado and the underlying heartache of the mad knight. There's also his warm, baritone voice, which he uses powerfully in the show's best-known song, "The Impossible Dream."

In fact, each of the show's leads is excellently cast.

Kristé L. Belt brings a big Broadway sound (as her name would suggest) and a smoldering fire to the role of Aldonza, the low-born kitchen wench whom Quixote idolizes as the Lady Dulcinea.

As she belts out tirades against men, she calls to mind Kate from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Ultimately, though, she's transformed by Quixote's kindness rather than broken by the cruelty around her. Belt is able to portray both Aldonza's protective wall of fury and the fragile hope that lies beneath.

Dennis Gallardo, as Quixote's squire Sancho Panza, lives up to his role as the humorous relief. With expert comic delivery of his lines, combined with his cartoonishly expressive face and self-effacing posture, he is easy to love.

Around these three principals are arrayed the "sane" people of the world: the well-meaning innkeeper (Todd Luethjohann), a spineless priest (Rob Roberts), the cynical Dr. Carrasco (Brian Levario) and Quixote's calculating niece (Julia Higgins). Encila has chosen his cast well, and each of these performers shines.

In fact, music director David Craig coaxes great performances out of all his singers, but the live orchestra, a half-dozen musicians strong, unfortunately has trouble with the score, most of it in a difficult 7/8 tempo—though the choreography, by Debbie Runge, is energetic.

The musical's creators wisely condensed Cervantes' sprawling novel into a single conflict, with the delusional Quixote on one side, and the cynical Dr. Carrasco on the other. One believes too much, and the other too little. The authors argue, through Cervantes, that poetry and fantasy are what make life worth living.

I suspect it is theatergoers' resonance with this theme that has given Man of La Mancha such longevity. Among musicals, it ranks as a fairly minor work: The plot is meandering, and the score, though passionate, is not very memorable. But the final scene, when Quixote's dreams appear broken until he sees how they have transformed Aldonza, is a sure-fire, lump-in-the-throat moment of beauty.

In fact, the show—and this production—mirror the magic that Cervantes weaves in his dungeon. The rough edges and glitches—the inevitable flaws of a live amateur production—gradually fade in importance. You are left wrapped up in the story of all-too-human characters who are, in fact, nothing but fantasy.

I look forward to Studio Connections' next act as the troupe makes its new home at St. Francis in the Foothills next year.

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