You know from the striking “a cappella” flamenco dance tableau which opens Musical Theatre West’s revival of Man Of La Mancha that you’re in for something special. Then again, with multi-award winners Davis Gaines, Lesli Margherita, and Justin Robertson in the starring roles, Nick DeGruccio directing with his accustomed brilliance and imagination, and choreographic whiz Carlos Mendoza in charge of dance numbers, musical theater aficionados could expect nothing less.

The Tony-winning Best Musical of 1966 (book by Dale Wasserman) recounts the classic Miguel de Cervantes tale of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote Of La Mancha as Cervantes might have done so himself when imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition, enlisting the aid of his fellow dungeon-mates to bring that windmill-tilter’s quest to dramatic theatrical life while awaiting trial by some rather pesky Inquistors.

Donning Quijote’s trademark gray mustache and goatee, Cervantes quickly transforms himself into the aged Alonso Quijana, whose unrelenting dreams of chivalry and incessant thoughts of the world’s injustices have driven him into a madness in which he see himself as a “knight-errant,” one whose mission in life is “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go, to right the unrightable wrong, to be better far than you are, to try when your arms are too weary to reach the unreachable star.”

These are of course the lyrics to Man Of La Mancha’s Greatest Hit, “The Impossible Dream,” just one of the musical’s many memorable songs, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, brought to life on the stage of Cal State Long Beach’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center by an all-around sensational cast.

Gaines, best known for his over 2000 performances as The Phantom Of The Opera, is a memorable Man Of La Mancha indeed, giving us Señor Quijote in all his many shadings as he mistakenly battles a windmill he mistakes for a four-armed giant—just as he does a roadside inn for a castle and a serving wench as his lady fair. Vocally, too, Gaines couldn’t be better, lending his golden pipes to the title song, “Dulcinea,” “Golden Helmet Of Mabrino,” and of course the above-quoted “The Impossible Dream (The Quest).”

Alongside Gaines’ masterful lead performance is Robertson’s delightful work as loyal squire Sancho Panza, offering stalwart support (along with comic relief in Man Of La Mancha’s lighter moments, including “I Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.”)

Man Of La Mancha provides opportunities for some of our finest character actors to shine in featured and cameo roles. These include Richard Gould’s kindly innkeeper, Damon Kirsche’s commanding Dr. Carrasco, Jason Webb’s wise Padre, Steven Glaudini’s comic barber, and Karenssa LeGear’s distraught Antonia. Glaudini’s quirky coiffeur and his “Barber’s Song” are particular treats, with Webb’s exquisite tenor soaring in “To Each His Dulcinea (To Every Man His Quest).”

Doing fine work in smaller roles are Jebbel Arce, Venny Carranza, Jay Donnell, Brad Fitzgerald, Michael Guarnera, Christopher Hamby, Isaac James, Patrick Robert Kelly, Dynell Leigh, AJ Mendoza, Ramone Owens, Andre Polo, and Sam Zeller, the latter back to his commandingly burly self, and powerfully so, after his star turn last summer as Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad. Carranza and Guarnera make particularly memorable impressions as a pair of dancing steeds. (The horse-drawn carriage sequence is a brilliantly ingenious visual treat.)

If one role (and performance) has remained unmentioned so far, it’s merely a case of saving the best for last. Simply put, Margherita’s work as Aldonza is so breathtaking that anyone else playing the role in future might as well give up now. You won’t top the Olivier-winning star’s charismatic, gutsy, seductive, voluptuous, vulnerable, heart-breaking, awe-inspiring Aldonza. Deepening her voice to a guttural growl, oozing sexuality through every pore, and singing “It’s All The Same” and “Aldonza” with gut-wrenching heart and soul, Margherita’s performance merits “Best Ever” status, just as did her Audrey in Little Shop Of Horrors last year. (And just how many actresses do you know who can play Aldonza and Audrey?)

Musical director Matthew Smedal gets his biggest MTW assignment yet, one he fulfills to melodious perfection, conducting the production’s big, Broadway-ready pit orchestra, with musician Gary Lee deserving his own cheers for his onstage guitar strumming.

MTW’s Man Of La Mancha shines visually as well, with Steven Young lighting Kevin Clowes formidable prison dungeon set to highly dramatic effect. Cathleen Edwards’ terrific costumes allow drably-garbed prisoners to transform themselves into the show’s various Don Quijote characters with considerable flair. Julie Ferrin’s sound design is once again impeccable. Kudos go too to costume coordinator Todd Proto, and wig designer Mark Travis Hoyer. Clowes is technical director, Stanley D. Cohen stage manager, and Mary Ritenhour assistant stage manager/production manager. Paul Garman is MTW’s Executive Director/Producer and Glaudini its Artistic Director.

If there’s anything to carp about, it’s that this Man Of La Mancha runs long, nearly an hour longer than the 2002 Broadway revival, a number of those minutes due to the spectacular (but time-consuming) means by which Inquisitors and prisoners exit and exit. A quarter-hour shorter would be better.

Still, Man Of La Mancha lovers can hardly complain about a production as brilliantly conceived and executed as this one. Transport MTW’s Man Of La Mancha lock, stock, and barrel to Broadway and New York audiences would applaud every bit as loudly and critics rave every bit as enthusiastically as L.A. theatergoers and reviewers will likely be doing throughout its three-week run in Long Beach.

Richard And Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
February 11, 2012
Photos: Ken Jacques

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