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The Play-Goer: Compass Rose’s Man of La Mancha

Don Quixote’s swashbuckling ­optimism will send your pessimism packing 

Set as a play-within-a-play, imprisoned writer Miguel de Cervantes (Patrick G. Lynch, right) plays his own literary creation Don Quixote. His manservant Sancho Panza (Brendan Michael) provides a balancing tenor and is a comic delight.
     In these times of acrimony, hypocrisy and hate, is it an impossible dream to believe in chivalry, goodness and love? Not according to Don Quixote, the would-be knight errant whose comic yet sincere optimism and swashbuckling bravery send pessimism packing every time. There’s a lesson there for us all.
      Opening on Broadway in 1965 and running for 2,328 performances, Man of La Mancha was based on Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote. The production won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and its soundtrack generated several classics, none bigger than The Impossible Dream.
     Now, Compass Rose Theater has brought La Mancha to Annapolis in a scaled-down version with a cast of eight, a small but cleverly used stage and a single accompanist. Thanks to director Lucinda Merry-Browne and music director Anita O’Connor, none of this downsizing has encroached on the impact of the play. Compass Rose’s production instead provides an intimacy that enhances the show’s idealism and poignancy. 
     The play-within-a-play is set in a prison as Miguel de Cervantes and his fellow prisoners await sentencing by the Spanish Inquisition. The prisoners want to steal the contents of Cervantes’ large trunk, which includes the accouterments that go with his work as author, actor and the tax collector who put a lien on a monastery. The latter is what got him thrown into prison. To protect his belongings, he proposes a mock trial in which his defense consists of a play the prisoners act out. Thus, Cervantes becomes Don Quixote. 
      Patrick G. Lynch gives Cervantes/Don Quixote more bombast than bluster, which works well in the intimate setting, and a touching sincerity that never wavers. That sincerity and Lynch’s rich baritone make his rendition of The Impossible Dream a glorious and emotional anthem to optimism. But he also delivers the goods on the more lively numbers, such as I Am I, Don Quixote, as he sets the stage for the prisoners. 
      Providing a nice tenor counterpart in that song is Brendan Michael as Sancho Panza, Cervantes’ manservant. Michael’s I Really Like Him — explaining why he remains faithful to a man others consider to be mad — is a comedic delight.
     Elizabeth Hester gives Aldonza, the lady of the night, a suitably gruff and sarcastic demeanor. Her frustration at the chivalrous treatment she receives from Quixote later turns to curiosity, then, as he lies dying, to moving empathy. Her soaring soprano is highlighted in numbers such as Aldonza, when she tries to convince the unconvinceable Quixote that she is no lady, and in What Do You Want of Me, as Aldonza wonders to herself where the good is he sees in her.
     Other cast members play multiple roles, donning costumes from aprons to horse heads and moving just a few set pieces around to become the many characters and settings that are part of Cervantes’ tilting-at-windmills tale. Their beautiful voices are as effective as their acting flexibility, offering character-specific pieces as well as harmonies throughout. 
     They are accompanied on piano by Sangah Purinton, whose brilliance at the keys is matched only by her mastery of the difficult score. She’s so good a player that we almost believe the score was written for a single piano rather than an orchestra. Any singer will tell you that there are a lot of piano players out there, but far fewer accompanists, and there is a difference. Purinton is an accompanist of the highest order. 
     Compass Rose’s Man of La Mancha is an intimate portrayal of one man’s belief in himself and others. The story is told skillfully, the songs are sung beautifully and we walk out thinking that maybe optimism isn’t such an impossible dream after all.
FSa 8pm, Su 2pm, SuTh 7pm thru March 31: Compass Rose Theater at the Power House Building, Annapolis, $41 w/discounts, rsvp: