First of all - yes, I'm aware two musicals opened in Canberra and I haven't reviewed them. And I probably won't - I didn't see "Evita" (I'm familiar enough with the show to know I don't need to see it again) and it's unlikely I'll see "Mary Poppins" (ticket prices and I'm a bit "ugh, children").
So why did I go to Sydney to see a 50 year old musical with one ubiquitous hit song ("The Impossible Dream")? Well, there's a few reasons. First of all, playing the lead is Tony Sheldon, who's recently had an overnight success on Broadway after some 40 odd years on Australian stages (getting a best supporting actor in a musical nomination for the Tony awards for "Priscilla Queen of the Desert"). Secondly, Squabblogic has gone from strength to strength since I saw their "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" last year, including a highly successful run of "The Drowsy Chaperone". And thirdly ... this is a show my dad kinda loved and I'd never seen, though I'd heard the two-LP London version with Keith Michell and loved the Spanish-rhythmed title song.
It's an odd-duck of a show, with a couple of nesting loops of reality. We start in a prision in Inquisition-era Spain, where Cervantes and his servant are sent awaiting trial. As the various other prisoners fall on him to divide his meagre posessions, Cerventes defends himself by telling a story - the story of Don Quixote, which he proceeds to have the prisoners help him re-enact. And Don Quixote in turn is a deluded knight-errant who has a tendency to reassign people's identities at will - the local inkeeper becomes lord of a castle, and his tavern wench Aldonza becomes the fair maiden Dulcinea. Navigating all of these and keeping the show flowing is done with aplomb - this is a musical that begins without music, and the eruption of the title song about ten minutes in, as Cervantes establishes his story and persuades the prisoners to beat out a rhythm that suddenly bursts out into grand heroic song, is irresistibly persuasive.
It's also an odd duck in that it's a presentation of romantic fantasy with a clear eye of the perils of having those fantasies. Sheldon is key to this, his performance(s) split nicely between a brisk, spry Cervantes as narrator and a doddering, foolish but heartfelt Don Quixote. His Quixote is endearing and his delivery of "The Impossible Dream" seems to emphasise the word "Impossible" while also capturing the powerful yearning and the heroism that lies in having desires far beyond what realism would tell you is acheivable.
Marika Aubrey plays opposite him as Aldonza, the aforementioned tavern wench. Her rough-as-guts introduction song, "It's all the same" introduces her as bitter, angry and posessed with a killer voice that ranges from low guttral resentments to glorious soprano. And her softening to Quixote is gradual and hardwon - we are with her all the way as she is drawn in. Ross Chisari's Sancho is possibly one of the weaker aspects - he's a little too clowny (although in his "outside" role as Cervantes servant, he's nicely subdued), although part of this may be the nature of his material - his biggest song, "I Like Him" doesn't really have anything to give us after the title, and therefore goofing around the set may be the best bet to fill the time.
There is some clever cross-gender casting going on (Joanna Weinberg playing Doctor Carasco/The Duke with cynicism and delightful snobbery, while Stephen Anderson as the housekeeper sopranos well in "I'm Only Thinking of Him" - a sequence that stands out as being particularly strong, formal staging after the rough-and-tumble, more organic staging of the rest of the show.
In short, this is a delight to catch, strong performers in a classic that captures the eye, ear and heart.