Several outstanding performances including a best-yet star turn by Marc Ginsburg in the title role make Glendale Centre Theatre’s Man Of La Mancha revival a fine introduction (or return visit) to the Tony-winning Best Musical of 1966, though the in-the-round setting does somewhat impede the atmospheric look that has made past La Manchas such production design dazzlers.

As any Broadway buff can tell you, Tony winner Dale Wasserman’s book recounts the classic Miguel de Cervantes tale of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote Of La Mancha precisely 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 Inquisitors.

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 (The Quest),” just one of the musical’s many memorable songs, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion.

Admittedly, Wasserman’s book can get a tad confusing with Cervantes playing Don Quijote who is really Alonso Quijana and inmates sometimes taking on multiple roles in a musical-within-a-musical. As for how each prisoner has his or her part down letter-perfect, well, audiences will merely have to suspend disbelief and go with the conceit, one that has worked more than satisfactorily for nearly half-a-century so far.

It helps a great deal that just one of director Randy Brenner’s inventive touches was the inspired casting of early-30something Ginsburg to play Cervantes, making the stage-graying of hair and spirit-gluing of eyebrows and beard more striking than simply the transformation of one older character for another.

That Ginsburg may well be delivering a career-best performance—and about the farthest cry imaginable from his Best Actor Scenie-winning turn as Leo Bloom in The Producers—adds to the Glendale Centre Theatre production’s allure, whether it’s Don Quijote battling a windmill he mistakes for a four-armed giant or confusing a roadside inn for a castle or believing a serving wench/whore to be his lady fair. Add to the above vocal chops every bit as resonant as his velvet speaking tones and you’ve got renditions of “Dulcinea,” “Golden Helmet Of Mabrino,” and “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” that rival those of the best Quijotes who’ve come before.

SoCal musical theater treasure Victoria Strong once again epitomizes beauty, talent, and versatility, transitioning effortlessly from previous legit-soprano roles like Eliza Doolittle, Guenevere, and Anna Leonowens to the guttural belt of Aldonza’s “It’s All The Same” and “Aldonza” and the dark, twisted places the role takes her. (Those in love with Strong’s silver soprano do get to hear it in “What Does He Want Of Me” and the “Dulcinea” reprise.)

Completing the splendid lead trio is Reggie De Leon, an absolute delight in his latest outing as loyal squire Sancho Panza, providing rib-tickling comic relief in Man Of La Mancha’s lighter moments along with song treats like “I Like Him” and “A Little Gossip.”

Supporting roles are well-played indeed, from James Warnock’s Innkeeper/Governor to Kevin Holmquist’s Pedro to Liz Bustle’s Fermina to Melissa Dunham’s Antonia to John Holder’s Padre to Lisa Dyson’s Innkeeper’s Wife to Chris Gomez’s Duke/Carrasco (though the latter’s Spanish accent proves incongruous amongst the rest of the cast’s American ones). Todd Andrew Ball is a comedic standout as a “golden-helmeted” traveling Barber, with Raymond Barcelo, Seth Freed, Hisato Masuyama-Ball, Ross Petrarca, and Paul Reid doing fine work as Muleteers, their attack on Aldonza remaining the musical’s most devastating sequence. (Despite a toned-down sexual explicitness, the assault proves that rare instance of Glendale Centre Theatre’s daring to challenge its audiences with anything rougher than G-rated fare.)

Though Man Of La Mancha features only a few dance sequences, with Lee Martino as choreographer, they provide several exciting breaks from the evening’s drama, comedy, and songs. Musical director Steven Applegate once again elicits fine vocals, performed to prerecorded tracks. Angela Wood’s costumes prove the designer’s flair, even without fancy frills. Alex Mackyol’s sound design is topnotch.

Less effective designwise is Tim Dietlein’s set, this being one instance where despite director Brenner’s finesse at directing in the round and Dietlein’s skill at designing for Glendale Centre Theatre’s special needs, GCT’s arena stage and lighting fail to plunge us into the dark, dank dungeon that previous Man Of La Manchas have provided, one of the rare instances I’m forced to say that proscenium probably works best.

Nick Mizrahi is stage manager.

In a year that has brought Glendale Centre Theatre audiences the razzle-dazzle of Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Music Man, and Me And My Girl, Man Of La Mancha emphasizes human drama and gorgeous melodies over glitz. Though just about the farthest thing imaginable from the toe-tapping, high-kicking, song-and-dance extravaganza its most recent musical predecessors proved to be, the latest from GCT nonetheless offers audiences plenty to cheer about.

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Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
November 6, 2014

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