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A scene from the Stratford Festival’s Man of La Mancha.

Michael Cooper/Stratford Festival

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Man of La Mancha
Written by
Dale Wasserman
Directed by
Robert McQueen
Actors
Tom Rooney
Music
Mitch Leigh
Lyrics
Joe Darion
Company
Stratford Festival
City
Stratford, Ont
Year
2014

We all have favourite musicals that we'd travel around the world to see for the twentieth time, and musicals that we wouldn't cross the block to see for a second. When the musical line-up this year's Stratford Festival was announced, it left me cold: Neither Crazy for You, nor Man of La Mancha make my list of top tuners.

But Donna Feore's production of Crazy for You convinced me with its vigour and vitality and squeezed the best out of the cast and the material. And now director Robert McQueen has altered my opinion of Man of La Mancha, too - unfortunately, in the other direction. I'm now more convinced than ever that it is an overly sentimental artifact of the sixties with one good take-away tune.

That would be The Impossible Dream (The Quest) - and Tom Rooney, an actor who normally can do no wrong, sings the heck out of it. His stirring rendition of the Mitch Leigh composition and the gorgeous, on-stage Spanish guitar playing by Kevin Ramessar are the main pleasures of this Stratford production.

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Rooney plays, or rather underplays, author/playwright/tax collector Cervantes who, thrown into jail for an affront to the Catholic church, must perform a version of his masterpiece Don Quixote for his fellow inmates before he faces the Spanish Inquisition.

This is an implausible and overly complicated set-up - made even more problematic here in an over-designed production that is cluttered and ugly without even having a moment of genuine grit.

Man of La Mancha - like other philosophically drippy meta-musicals of a similar vintage such as Pippin and The Fantasticks - is the type of show that is more successful the more simply it is presented. As sidekick Sancho Panza, Steve Ross pours the right level of syrup on songs like I Like Him - and there are suitably sweet (and beautifully sung) performances from Shane Carty and Sean Alexander Hauk as an innkeeper and padre. But they're often undercut by McQueen's overly busy staging and an approach to the darker parts of the show that is vulgar without being effectively menacing.

Robin Hutton is saddled with a part - that of the barmaid Aldonza that Don Quixote idolizes as his lady Dulcinea - that seems to frequently stray out of her vocal range. She tries to act the heck out of it in response, but her efforts seem frantic especially when she's saddled with Marc Kimelman's frenetic choreography, lots of stylized crotch-punching and biting that quickly tire your eyes.

And then there's Rooney at the centre of it all. His subtle approach works well for Cervantes - but, in the show-within-the-show, he proves too sane and restrained a Don Quixote; there's too much method (acting) in his madness.

With a star as unreachable as Rooney and nary a character you care about - the only part of Man of La Mancha that registers are the heavy-handed themes, repeated over and over, until you start to resent them and want to see Don Quixote and everyone in the creative team in in a strait-jacket. This maudlin musical proves an unbeatable foe for them

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