Tilting at Idealism: 'Man of La Mancha' at The 5th Avenue Theatre

This classic musical about the beauty and costs of idealism offers superb acting and timeless themes

Man of La Mancha. Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka
'Man of La Mancha' | Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

Bottom line

The blockbuster 1960s musical about literature's most famous idealist, Don Quixote, gets freshened up in this 5th Avenue Theatre remake (playing through Oct. 30). With a compelling storyline about the beauty and costs of idealism and fantastic singing and acting, there is a lot to love here, but the story's complexity and occasional brutality makes it most appropriate for older teens and grown-ups. 

Highlights

Man of La Mancha opens with a bang, a guitar strum and a stage shrouded in darkness. The darkness lifts to show a stone prison in the 16th century, where prisoners languish below while the guards, dressed in the universally fear-inducing garb of the Inquisition, only occasionally appear in the gateway above, walkinig down the stairs to pluck a hapless prisoner for questioning. 

Today, there is a new prisoner — a tall skinny man accompanied by his stout servant — who seems... different. Turns out he is a poet, a fact that seems enough cause for the other prisoners to turn against him. They confiscate the manuscript he's brought and put him on trial, a mirror-like image of the Inquisition that's happening above ground. His only salvation is to spin a tale engaging enough to justify the career choice of poetry.

So Cervantes — because, of course, it is Cervantes — tells the story of a lifetime: of a country squire named Don Quixote who, driven mad by the tales of chivalry he reads, dresses himself as a knight errant and sallies forth to do battle against evil, perform good deeds, use flowery language and find love. But love doesn't come easily for the mad Don. He needs to convince a barmaid named Aldonza that she is actually a lady named Dulcinea.

At 5th Avenue, the acting and singing is suberb throughout the show. Rufus Bonds, Jr. plays the lead with the most excellent blend of sincerity, charisma and incredible vocal chops. As played by Don Darryl Rivera, Sancho Panza, the Don's loyal manservant, adds whip-smart humor, both physical and verbal, to the production. And Nova Payton makes us believe in impossible dreams with her slow transformation of world-weary Aldonza to a Dulcinea who helps the mad knight regain faith just in time. 

Nova Payton as Aldonza/Dulcinea in 'Man of La Mancha.' Photo credit Tracy Martin.
Nova Payton as Aldonza/Dulcinea in 'Man of La Mancha.' | Photo credit Tracy Martin

The musical numbers are top-notch, but it's a melancholy, dreamy score that matches the subject matter but isn't as lively as many Broadway shows. A surprise hit for me was the gorgeous, guitar-flecked "Little Bird, Little Bird," sung by the tavern crew in gorgeous harmonies. 

Parents should know: Should I bring kid? 

The 5th Avenue Theatre recommends the show for ages 13 and older; I'd tilt towards slightly older teens who already have an interest in the subject matter. Parents should know that there is low-grade brutality, by prisoners, prison guards and tavern-goers throughout the play — a level of violence that pales in comparison to video games and movies familiar to many teens, but which packs an emotional punch. The most disturbing scene is where Aldonza/Dulcinea is brutalized and beaten by the muleteers who patronize the tavern where she works; to me, rape is suggested in the scene (though never said). 

Similarly, parents looking to bring their teens to a show with three-dimensional, empowered female characters won't find that here. Dulcinea is a strong character, and beautifully acted, but ultimately she's the creation of Don Quixote's fertile imagination. It's not surprising for a play written in 1964, based on a novel published in 1605, but a rich topic to explore — along with idealism, madness, poetry and prisons. 

If you go ...

When: Man of La Mancha plays through Oct. 30 at 5th Avenue Theatre, with performances every day but Monday, Oct. 24.

Tickets: Start at $29; check the website for deals.

Show length: The show is two hours in length, with no intermission (go to the bathroom before it starts!)

Age recommendation: Age 13 and older; read the content advisories for more detail about language and violence. 

Tips: There are many parking garages in downtown Seattle. As for food, we like Wild Ginger, which is just a few blocks away. 

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