WATERTOWN — Form and content are at odds, injuriously if not fatally, in the New Repertory Theatre production of “Man of La Mancha.’’
Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, this “La Mancha’’ strives for a gritty Brecht-Weill flavor and the urgency of political allegory, only to be consistently undermined by the thin material of a creaky musical burdened by a stilted script (by Dale Wasserman) and a spotty score (by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion).
Left stranded amid the lugubriousness, sentimentality, and general diffuseness is that fine actor Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who portrays Miguel de Cervantes as well as the novelist’s famous fictional creation, Don Quixote, and a third character, the delusional Alonso Quijana. Standing on firmer ground is Ute Gfrerer, who plays Aldonza, the waitress at an inn whom Don Quixote idealizes as the fair lady Dulcinea. Gfrerer’s background in cabaret is evident in her commanding performance of “It’s All the Same’’ and her poignant rendition of “What Does He Want of Me?,’’ both of which linger vividly in the mind’s ear.
Structured as a play-within-a-play, “Man of La Mancha’’ was seen as innovative in its day. It seems considerably less so today, and the show’s best-known song, “The Impossible Dream,’’ comes across now as hokum, albeit sneakily stirring hokum. (For the record, Parent does just fine with “The Impossible Dream.’’)
Having premiered at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House in the mid-1960s before moving to New York, “La Mancha’’ tapped into the social ferment and political idealism of that era. Back then, original director Albert Marre said of audiences: “They’re not just watching a play, they’re having a religious experience.’’
Seldom can the New Rep production be described in those exalted terms. With an eye toward our current political moment, this is the third show in a season that New Rep has built around the theme of “resilience,’’ although the presence of a fabulist in the White House doesn’t exactly fortify the case “La Mancha’’ wants to make in favor of a refusal to distinguish between reality and illusion. It’s not quite as easy these days to embrace the show’s notion that sanity is overrated, either. (Ordinarily, when Quixote declares that “Facts are the enemy of truth,’’ heads nod in I-get-what-you-mean agreement, but when Parent’s Quixote said it on opening night, there were knowing chuckles from the New Rep audience.)
But of course “La Mancha’’ is making a broader argument for the transformative power of the imagination, especially in the face of oppression. To underscore that implicit argument, Ocampo-Guzman has taken a deliberately anachronistic approach. Though the director clearly wants us to keep 2017 in mind, and though Wasserman’s script is laced with references to the Spanish Inquisition, this “Man of La Mancha’’ is partly set in the Spain of the 1960s (evoked by a large upstage mural on Eric Levenson’s set). That was a time when, Ocampo-Guzman writes in a director’s note, “the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco and the oppressive machinery of the Roman Catholic Church’’ held sway.
The cast wears olive-drab outfits, and — taking a page from the director John Doyle, known for productions of “Sweeney Todd’’ and “Company’’ in which cast members performed on musical instruments — several actors in “La Mancha’’ play guitar or trumpet. As “La Mancha’’ begins, Cervantes and his secretary are in prison. (The secretary is portrayed by Michael Levesque, who plays both guitar and ukulele, and who, once the secretary morphs into the beleaguered Sancho Panza, is saddled with one of the show’s weakest songs, “I Like Him.’’)
They’ve been imprisoned because Cervantes, a tax collector, foreclosed on a monastery. Soon, Cervantes is being subjected to a mock trial by the other prisoners; he asks that he be allowed to present a play as his defense. Then Cervantes transforms himself into the central character of that play, a gentleman named Alonso Quijana. Alonso has steeped himself in the lore of chivalry and is under the delusion that duty requires him to sally forth to right wrongs as a knight-errant. As he tries to do so, “Man of La Mancha’’ strains to invest ensuing events with an aura of profundity — a quest that ultimately seems, well, quixotic.
MAN OF LA MANCHA
By Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. Directed by Antonio Ocampo-Guzman. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At MainStage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Dec. 24. Tickets $22-$72, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
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