Knight Shift 

Playhouse puts on Man of La Mancha.

The mere mention of "The Impossible Dream," the signature song from the 1965 musical Man of La Mancha, conjures up images of a Las Vegas lounge rat in a lavender tux -- a hard-luck kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, crooning in the shower and believing that with enough practice, cigarettes, and scotch he might someday inherit the cheese-encrusted mantle of Robert Goulet. For 40 long years, the inspirational ballad has been used and abused by high school choral groups and bubble-headed contestants in beauty pageants. It's become the punch line to its own joke and carries so many kitschy connotations it's difficult to digest even in its intended context.

Michael Detroit, who plays the impossible dreamer Don Quixote, the mad knight of La Mancha, in Playhouse on the Square's revival of the aging musical, doesn't help matters much. He tiptoes through the threadbare song looking for subtlety where nothing of the kind exists. He needs to take a cue from his legendary character who proves time and again that a little courage can quickly account for all manner of foolishness.

There is much fault to be found in Memphis' latest vision of La Mancha. Stacked up against Playhouse's landmark production of Of Mice and Men, the musical seems awkward, imprecise, and amateurish around the edges.

Many times in theater, simplicity and sincerity can cover a host of sins, but the role of Don Quixote requires not only a deep sincerity but also a terrifying passion. The audience isn't engaged by the absurdity of an old man tilting at windmills but by Quixote's unswerving conviction that he's eradicating evil from the earth. We're not attracted to the chasteness or purity of a lunatic's love for a sweaty kitchen slut named Aldonza but by his ardor. Detroit's Quixote is too composed and even in his bungling more monk than madman. His sincerity is winning, but it's also a cheat. Quixote is no good if seen as nothing but a harmless old coot. In both polite and impolite company, he should represent a serious threat to the status quo.

Playhouse's production limps clumsily through the expository first act on the strength of its Latin beat and some exceptional lighting by Lee Burckes but picks up steam after intermission when actress Angela Groeschen -- a formidable Aldonza -- finally finds her voice. "I was spawned in a ditch by a mother who left me there naked and cold and too hungry to cry," she wails. "I never blamed her. I'm sure she left hoping that I'd have the good sense to die." When Groeschen sings about the awful realities of a whore's life she finds all the passion that has been previously missing from the play. She's familiar with horror, and Quixote's gentle insanities crash her defenses: "Blows and abuse I can take and give back again. Tenderness I cannot bear."

Following the tradition (though not the exact narrative) of Cervantes' original, Man of La Mancha is an exercise in perspective. It begins as old Cervantes himself -- a constant debtor and no stranger to prison -- is cast into jail for having the audacity to foreclose on a wealthy church for nonpayment of taxes. But before he can be tried by the church, he must first be tried in another kangaroo court by a jury composed of thieves, madmen, and murderers. To plead his defense, Cervantes acts out his great tragicomedy, Don Quixote, and encourages the prisoners to take on appropriate roles. The play-within-a-play creates opportunity for a tremendous amount of self-conscious theatricality, but this time around Playhouse director Dave Landis only comes through with slapstick, sentiment, and sight gags.

Although imperfect, Playhouse's Man of La Mancha is generally competent. It is also fairly compelling because Cervantes' story about finding purpose inside madness is still compelling, and the musical tells the tale well enough. In a moment of sanity, Quixote explains to his family -- concerned primarily with their inheritance -- that he understands what reality is, but he rejects it, claiming that "facts are the enemies of truth." He's seen the faces of men murdered in warfare -- men who went to their graves not wondering why they were slain but why they had ever been born. Not liking the reality he's been given, he embraces his madness and creates a new reality where right makes might and courtesy is the noblest of virtues. In jaded times, the story of Don Quixote can be a powerful elixir. Playhouse on the Square's production is, at the very least, a strong tonic.

Through June 5th

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