Burning Coal Theatre Company is currently producing Man of La Mancha at the Murphey School in downtown Raleigh. Written by Mitch Leigh (music), Joe Darion (lyrics), and Dale Wasserman (book), this production is the transformation of Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes’ great work Don Quixote into musical form. The musical’s famous song, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” has been recorded by numerous artists and continues to be a song that celebrates fighting for what’s right, “without question or pause.”

Man of La Mancha originally opened on Broadway in 1965 but the writing had begun in the late 1950s when the Civil Rights Movement was moving into high gear. Man of La Mancha is a reflection of the discontented youth and minorities during the time of social and political change. Don Quixote sings of creating a better world through striving for what is right, no matter how difficult and no matter how hopeless it may seem. These Quixote beliefs, as paraphrased from Artistic Director Jerome Davis, may be the only way to move forward as a nation.

What an appropriate time for this production to be staged in Raleigh! Not far from the theater, maybe a mile or so, you can find Occupy Raleigh set up in tents. Whether you strongly support the Occupants or find them ridiculous, Raleigh is a part of the national socio-political scene. The quest for change is present – tents and all.

Burning Coal’s production is a beautiful telling of the popular and inspiring story. The actors – a cast of fourteen – complement each other very well. Randolph Curtis Rand and David Henderson gave excelling performances as Don Quixote and Sancho, respectively, as they tackled the play-within-a-play structure with clarity, heart, and comedy.

The staging by director Tea Alagic and choreography by Debra Gillingham used the thrust space with great skill. Only at a few moments did I feel confused in the story and that can mostly be attributed to the minimalist design and partly to the actors and the writing itself. The musical can be successfully produced in a minimalist style, but this production’s execution left me wanting. At a glance, the designs don’t feel completely realized – as if a large crayon were used as opposed to a finer point. Making this observation, I am reminded of the famous Picasso painting of Don Quixote and Sancho on horseback, which does actually look like a thick black marker was taken to white paper, so, in some respects, the designs were spot on, but in others, I was less satisfied.

I was also slightly troubled by the jazz-like tone of Aldonza/Dolcinea played by Yolanda Rabun. While her grit and heart rang true, I had hoped for a softer vocal quality when she embraced herself as Dulcinea. The transformation from Aldonza to Dulcinea is the manifestation of Alonso/ Don Quixote’s dream. He saw the purity of Dulcinea in the whore Aldonza the whole time. Though his quest may not be realized after he is defeated, his hopes become reality in her.

Man of La Mancha at Burning Coal is certainly an enjoyable show with its well-known tunes and undeniably powerful themes – and besides, it’s nice to be reminded that, even during times of hardship, the quest for what’s right is always worth it in the end.

The production will be showing until February 19. For details, see the sidebar.