Dreaming the Impossible Dream at Hampton Theatre Company

In Quogue
Rick Grossman, Matthew Conlon, Elora Von Rosch, Anthony Arpino, Jessica Howard, and Nora Moutrane in rehearsal for “Man of La Mancha” at the Hampton Theatre Company in Quogue. Tom Kochie

Overheard at last Thursday’s opening show of the Hampton Theatre Company’s “Man of La Mancha”: “What they’re doing up there is incredible!”

“That couple has been married for 48 years and went to see this play on their first date!”

“Absolutely the best show yet!”

“Wow! Wow! Wow!”

Since theater cannot happen without an audience, and a show can live or die the moment it meets its viewer, this bold and exuberant production of the 1965 Dale Wasserman and Mitch Leigh musical “Man of La Mancha” in Quogue is officially a success.

In small theaters especially, collaboration is at the heart of survival. The audience becomes collaborators of sorts, people whose response, patronage, and critique is vital to the continuum of the art form, and of regional theater. All stuff the Hampton Theatre Company clearly knows a thing or two about. This is its 34th season. 

“Man of La Mancha” is the company’s first musical. It’s not surprising that it resisted big musical theater productions for so long given its limited budgets and stage. So, how perfect then that for the troupe’s first foray into the genre it decided to dream the impossible dream.

Powerful, brutal, hilarious, and heartbreaking, “Man of La Mancha” is based on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century novel “Don Quixote,” about a character who has become synonymous with head-in-the-clouds romanticism, a man who refuses to relinquish his ideals or his passion.

It probably says something about a worldwide quest for more hopeful times that “La Mancha” will also open on London’s West End next month, starring Kelsey Grammer. 

“We did it first,” said a smiling Diana Marbury last Thursday. She is the Hampton Theatre Company’s artistic director and co-directed this production with Edward Brennan.

Matthew Conlon, a regular here, plays the wandering hidalgo Don Miguel de Cervantes, who almost 500 years ago in Spain was imprisoned during the Inquisition. Thrown into a dungeon, Cervantes and his manservant, Sancho (an excellently cast Rick Grossman), desperately try to save the writer’s manuscript from marauding cellmates who want to burn it. Cervantes requests a “trial,” which unfurls as a story within 

a story of Don Quixote’s musical misadventures, rife with love, chivalry, and, ultimately, hope. 

Winner of the 1966 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best musical, the wonderfully singable score includes classics like “The Impossible Dream,” “I, Don Quixote,” “Dulcinea,” and “I Really Like Him.”

Mr. Conlon presented a plausible figure as Cervantes, the mad but kind nobleman. Yet despite a strong voice, he failed to transport me to where my heart simply ran away, something you want of a good musical. Rather than provoking any visceral emotions, he offered only a sense of engagement in a story well told.

Luckily, passion was supplied by the female lead, Elora Von Rosch, in the role of the prostitute Aldonza. A newcomer to Quogue, Ms. Von Rosch is apparently more than capable of delivering performances that can fire an audience’s imagination (most recently she performed onboard a Viking Cruise ship and in several Off Broadway and regional musical productions). 

In one of the show’s bleaker moments, a physically battered Aldonza, who has been sexually assaulted, demands that Don Quixote see the reality of her life. Sung with equal measures of venom and sadness, Ms. Von Rosch gives a powerful voice to sexual violence as she describes the “cruel bastards” who have beaten her up and made her feel nothing like the lady Don Quixote imagines her to be: “I am no one / I’m nothing / I’m only Aldonza the whore.”

(Also overheard in a nearby seat: “The women are clearly the ones with the better voices.”)

My only disappointment was that Jessica Howard, who plays the innkeeper’s wife, did not have more opportunities to sing. When she did, during the touching ballad “We’re Only Thinking of Him,” her voice was mesmeric, conveying more about the power of hope than the story itself.

But collectively, this impossibly large-scale production with 12 actors, six live musicians, a choreographer, and a backstage retinue that excelled — Teresa LeBrun’s costumes, Sean Marbury’s set design, Sebastian Paczynski’s lighting, and sound design by Seamus Naughton — was every bit deserving of the standing ovation it received. “La Mancha” is proof of the Hampton Theatre Company’s resilience of spirit. In finding new ways to make different kinds of work and break fresh ground in order to thrill its patrons, the company has delivered its own hopeful story of triumph in the face of extremely challenging odds.

Overheard in the parking lot after the show (a man singing): “To fight the unbeatable foe / To reach the unreachable star.”

“Man of La Mancha” will be performed on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 2:30 through April 7. An additional matinee performance will take place on April 6. Special dinner-and-theater packages are available. Tickets are $40, $35 for senior citizens (except Saturdays), $30 for those under 35, and $20 for students under 21. More information can be found and tickets purchased at hamptontheatre.org.