By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
If there’s one thing we all know about Don Quixote, it’s this: He dreamed the impossible dream. Sure, he was crazy and fictional, but that's what he did, he reached for ideals no one could ever grasp.
Man of La Mancha, the musical adapatation of his adventures, laid this out in a song that has become a solid piece of the American musical theater canon. I thought the play The Return of Don Quixote, which opened at People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern over the weekend, might give us something different, some curve-ball insight.
But despite a capable attempt by People’s Light, with strong characterizations by Graham Smith as Quixote and Chris Faith as his sidekick Sancho Panza, all The Return of Don Quixote can manage is greeting-card repetition: He had an impossible dream, he taught us to dream, the play tells us. Repeatedly.
Enough already! Kira Obolensky’s belabored play starts off with a great premise, but unfolds with disappointing creases. We begin at the old man’s home, where he’s cloistered in subdued retirement and using only his real name, which Cervantes gave him (along with the name Don Quixote) in two 17th-century novels.
Sancho finds Quixote and urges him to return to his adventurous (and mad) days of yore, because Quixote has never fulfilled a promise to give Sancho an island. He also gives Quixote a copy of the popular first novel about him; the novel’s graphic accounts make the old man both wistful and enraged. It’s back to the windmills.
So we can expect some action here — and eventually, we get nice swordplay (the fight director is Samantha Bellomo), along with a healthy dose of freely adapted scenes from Cervantes’ books. These begin to lag in the middle of the first half, then pick up after intermission, in an asylum where many patients claim to be Don Quixote.
From then on, the play is like a piece of music that promises to end but can’t bring itself to do so. The impossible dream here is finding a way to make this something more than flat — director Ken Marini tries, as does the A-list cast that includes Alda Cortese, Melanye Finister, Peter DeLaurier, Stephen Novelli and Luigi Sottile.
Their attempt is at times impressive and so is some of the stagecraft, particularly Robert Kaplowitz’ sound design and Marla J. Jurglanis’ elite-life Spanish costumes.
It’s great that Cervantes — whose Quixote novels were meant as a repudiation of what he considered junky romances — has inspired much literature built on idealism and good-hearted dreamers. And even though a character in the play declaims, about the real and the imagined: “Fiction is better! It always is!” ... well ... not always.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.
The Return of Don Quixote: Presented by People’s Light & Theatre Company on its main stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, through Oct. 16. Tickets: $25-$45. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.