PITTSFIELD — It's not quite as daunting as tilting at windmills, but staging "Man of La Mancha'' is no slam dunk, either.
Can a musical so closely identified with a certain unabashed romanticism, one that champions the imperative to dream impossible dreams (to borrow a phrase), really work in our finger-quoting age of irony and reflexive skepticism?
Turns out it can. Helmed by artistic director Julianne Boyd, a fine Barrington Stage Company production of "La Mancha'' hits the mark. The production is bracingly dark, even unsettlingly so at times, while also raising the requisite quotient of goosebumps. Notwithstanding flaws that include a spotty score (music is by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion) and a less than subtle book (by Dale Wasserman), Boyd & Co. make a pretty compelling case for this venerable warhorse.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of "La Mancha,'' which was inspired by Cervantes's novel "Don Quixote'' and premiered at Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Barrington Stage, of course, has its own impressive record as a birthplace of musicals (the terrific revival of "On the Town'' that is now on Broadway, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'').
A vein of iconoclasm still runs through "La Mancha,'' with its baleful view of authority, its championing of illusion over reality, and even its play-within-a-play structure, which constantly calls attention to its own artifice, refusing to let us forget we are watching actors in a performance.
Boyd made astute casting choices, especially in the two key roles: Barrington Stage mainstay Jeff McCarthy in the lead and Felicia Boswell as Aldonza, a fiery but vulnerable serving maid. This "La Mancha'' also benefits hugely from Chris Lee's eerily atmospheric lighting and James Kronzer's looming, brooding set, which gives forbidding form to the prison in Seville, Spain, into which Cervantes has been confined by the Spanish Inquisition in 1605.
Threatening to burn his manuscript, Cervantes's fellow prisoners subject him to a mock trial. The author's defense takes the form of a drama that he and they will perform together. McCarthy's Cervantes becomes the elderly Alonso Quijana, besotted with tales of chivalry and now so addled that he fancies himself a knight-errant named Don Quixote de La Mancha, with a fake beard affixed to his face, and a tree branch for a lance. "Facts are the enemy of truth!'' he proclaims. (Somewhere, Stephen Colbert is smiling.)
Chief among Don Quixote's delusions is the notion that Aldonza is actually the lady Dulcinea, to whom he has pledged his chivalrous service — and no amount of angry remonstrations by Aldonza can persuade him otherwise. Boswell gives eloquent voice to Aldonza's combination of perplexity and curiosity in "What Does He Want of Me?'' The actress is moving in the chillingly rendered "The Abduction,'' when Aldonza suffers brutal treatment at the hands of a gang of mule drivers.
Portraying Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's faithful squire, is Tom Alan Robbins, who played Pumbaa in the original Broadway production of "The Lion King.'' Robbins acquits himself well, though he is saddled with the worst song in "La Mancha,'' an inane ditty titled "I Really Like Him.''
McCarthy, who demonstrated his skills at transformation two years ago with his nuanced performance as the transgender character Lola Cola in Barrington Stage's "Southern Comfort,'' delivers distinctive portrayals of all three figures he plays in "La Mancha.'' It's impressive to see how persuasively the sturdily built actor embodies frail old Don Quixote, and how artfully he captures the character's unextinguishable spirit.
Crucially, McCarthy nails his big number, "The Impossible Dream.'' To Red Sox fans of a certain age, that tune will forever summon memories of the summer of 1967. It was one of Ted Kennedy's favorite songs and was performed by Broadway singer Brian Stokes Mitchell at Kennedy's 2009 memorial service. In McCarthy's rendition, "The Impossible Dream'' registers as a testament not just to hope but to the necessity for hope — and there's nothing quixotic about that.
MAN OF LA MANCHA
Book by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion.
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Musical direction, Darren R. Cohen. Choreography, Greg Graham. Set, James Kronzer. Costumes, Olivera Gajic. Lights, Chris Lee. Sound, Ed Chapman.
Presented by Barrington Stage Company
At: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, through July 11
Tickets: Starting at $20, 413-236-8888, barringtonstageco.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.