Spanish scientists on March 17 said they had found the lost tomb of Miguel de Cervantes, father of modern literature and author of Don Quixote, nearly 400 years after his death.
Cervantes lives. I saw him, only days after the forensic team announced its discovery, on stage at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre, in a new production of Dale Wasserman’s musical Man of la Mancha. Two men are responsible for resurrecting him, local director Alan Paul and Australian baritone Anthony Warlow, one of the finest actors working in musical theater anywhere in the world.
A realist might never have attempted to book a star like Warlow, who shot to fame in 1988 for his portrayal of Enjolras in Les Misérables, for a gig outside of New York. But Paul, a 30-year-old, bespectacled, Jewish “theater geek” from Potomac, took a cue from Quixote himself, and dared to dream. “There’s no reason to do this show without an incredible leading man,” he said in an interview during rehearsals. “There are very few out there who are truly incredible. He can’t be a musical theater star who can’t act. He also needs a rich, baritone voice. And an unconventional mind.”
In Warlow, Paul has found all of those qualities. In this play within a play, he effortlessly moves between of Cervantes, the writer, and his famous character, the kind, honorable and hopelessly Romantic Don Quixote de la Mancha. Warlow said recently that whereas he once saw Man of la Mancha as a funny play, he now understands its pathos. In truth, the play, like life itself, contains aspects of both comedy and tragedy. Breaking from the Broadway tradition that preceded it, it contains no dancing chorus, no intermissions and delivers a message.
The action takes places during the Spanish Inquisition, a time, as Paul notes, when it was not easy to be Jewish in Spain. “Many Jews were expelled. Those who stayed were forced to convert, and many of them practiced their faith secretly. It was a time when freedom of speech, basic human rights, were taken away, and Don Quixote is, in a way, a fight against that – a wild bid to hold onto your humanity.
“The creators of the musical [Wasserman, composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion] understood that. The song “The Impossible Dream” comes out of that, even though the words do not appear in the book.”
The musical is not an adaptation of the book, but rather imagines two hours in the life of Cervantes, as he and his valet are thrown into a subterranean Spanish prison, complete with a torture wheel on stage. The thieves and ruffians who share his cell want to burn his manuscript, and he defends himself by involving them all in a charade, encouraging them to act out parts from Don Quixote.
Northwestern-trained Paul wisely confines all the action to this cell – there are no scene changes – and thus the characters and the audience are forced to rely on their imagination. In the process, Cervantes “awakens their empathy and brings them hope,” says Paul, even if it’s just a fool’s hope. “The musical has a reputation as having an overly sweet ending,” says Paul. “But I know that ending can be full of such emotion if it’s earned. This is a brutal prison environment. If you really set that up, the brutality of the Inquisition, and hope has to overcome incredible odds, it means something to the audience.”
He is right. So why didn’t he trust in the material? Why go to the trouble of bringing an actor like Warlow all the way here from Australia to create a real human being on stage (two of them, in fact) and then undermine him?
Unfortunately, that’s just what Nehal Joshi’s Sancho sets about doing in this show. If Man of la Mancha has a message – about living with honor, respecting women, being class and color blind, and about the necessity of optimism – Joshi is determined not to let us hear it. He’s on a quest of his own, it seems, to garner cheap laughs by dancing with furniture and shrieking in falsetto (funny the first time we heard it, in Abbott and Costello’s Hold that Ghost, in 1941).
Warlow himself has plenty of opportunities to play for laughs, tilting his lance at windmills, imagining bar keeps as barons, saucy kitchen wenches as virtuous beauties, but at every turn he practices restraint. Listen closely as he performs the musical’s signature song. If you’ve heard him sing “This is the Moment,” from Jekyll & Hyde, you know of his preternatural lung capacity, but he’s so invested in making you believe he’s an old man here, “with one foot already in the stirrup,” that he mutes his instrument. He allows himself only one bravura moment, during the end of “The Impossible Dream,” when he belts a high “F” that brings the audience to its feet. But it’s in the service of the drama.
Joshi is a talented performer, but his real life friend the director should have toned down his antics so the two characters could truly bond. I’m no curmudgeon. I love Kramer from Seinfeld. But Sancho the servant isn’t supposed to be Kramer. He’s supposed to be a reality check on his idealistic master, and, above all, his friend. The two never build any chemistry.
It appears that Paul hedged his bets, not entirely trusting that his D.C. audience would respond to a musical with a heart and a head. And that’s why he distracts us with Kramer, just when we’re on the verge of real feeling. As a result, Quixote here remains in a world of his own, never really connecting with any of the other cast members, not even Aldonza, the woman he loves “pure and chaste, from afar” (Amber Iman, in a well-sung but oddly contemporary performance).
At the show’s finale, the Inquisition summons Cervantes from his cage, and, with his manuscript of Don Quixote clutched to his heart, he climbs a giant, metal staircase to undergo what, in today’s parlance, we would call “enhanced interrogation.” As he leaves, the other prisoners sing “The Impossible Dream,” signaling that they have all understood his lesson and accepted his gift.
But I didn’t believe them.
Man of La Mancha, book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion and composed by Mitch Leigh, will play at Sidney Harman Hall through April 26. To purchase tickets or to learn more, call 202.547.1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org.
Timeline of Cervantes’ life
1547: Born near Madrid
1571: Shot and wounded at Battle of Lepanto
1575: Captured and enslaved for five years in Algiers
1605: Publishes first part of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, second part in 1615. Don Quixote is man obsessed with chivalry who sets out in search of adventure on his aging horse Rocinante and with his faithful squire Sancho Panza
1616: Cervantes dies aged 68, with six teeth remaining. Buried at Convent of Barefoot Trinitarians
Grave lost when convent rebuilt