Man of La Mancha
Lakewood Theatre, 368 S State St., Lake Oswego, 635-3901, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, through Oct 17, $25-27

It's true I'm biased against high-end community theaters in suburban locales with a senior citizen audience quotient exceeding 75 percent. But I've also given the Lakewood Theatre Company multiple chances to prove me wrong, and so have been rewarded with just the kind of middling, overdone crap (Sweeney Todd anyone?) that I had been expecting. Needless to say, I wasn't planning on seeing Man of La Mancha, but a good friend touted it as the "best musical ever," a description that, as a closet showtune lover, I have trouble resisting. So we went, and what we saw was intriguing.

Lakewood's recent $3 million renovation has paid off, resulting in a brilliantly designed stage that in the right hands, swallows the viewer into the play's world, a visceral effect desperately needed by the dying medium of modern theater. La Mancha set designer Glenn Gauer's hands are right. He has created an intricate underground dungeon, replete with the enormous, clanking ramp so crucial to the musical's success. A monstrous tongue that lowers at key times to bring prisoners in and take them away, the ramp is a menacing accoutrement to the play's main action, which revolves around a fantastical portrayal of Miguel de Cervantes (Leif Norby), the author of Don Quixote. While Cervantes awaits sentencing in this basement jail from the Spanish Inquisition, he regales his fellow prisoners with a lush musical rendition of his seminal novel. Tension mounts as his tale of the mad knight Quixote progresses, for the ramp could lower again at any time to take Cervantes awayÉ for good.

Norby is wonderful as Cervantes/Quixote, flipping between "reality" and the world of his story with exquisite ease, but this production lacks the imagination hinted at by its technical virtuosity. Gauer has given director Greg Tamblyn an incredible funhouse to play in, but Tamblyn's staging is bland and perfunctory, isolated to a small patch of space, neglecting the set's alluring pockets of darkness and mystery. His rendition is unimaginative, pandering fluff wrapped in a coat of mind-boggling potential. Lakewood has the resources to explode; now it just needs someone to light the fuse.