By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Don Kuehlhorn waited 30 years for a chance to play the leading role in "Man of La Mancha."
"It is one of the best leading roles for a man to do," said the Traverse City actor, who played a different part in a 1980s Chicago-area version of the show. "It has the morality, it has humor."
Kuehlhorn will finally get to put his own stamp on the dual role of novelist Cervantes and knight errant Don Quixote when he stars in the Old Town Playhouse production of "Man of La Mancha" Nov. 2-24 at the OTP MainStage Theatre.
Inspired by Miguel de Cervantes' 17th-century masterpiece, "Don Quixote," the musical tells the story of the "mad" nobleman-turned-knight as a play within a play, performed by Cervantes and his fellow prisoners as Cervantes awaits a hearing with the Spanish Inquisition. It's best known for the song "The Impossible Dream," in which Quixote sings of his quest to change the world and right all wrongs.
Now that the iconic role is his, Kuehlhorn said he's feeling the pressure of getting it right — and of introducing the show to a new generation.
The Tony Award-winning musical opened on Broadway in 1965 and was made into a movie in 1972. The Old Town Playhouse last produced it in 1979.
"Most everybody knows the story, a lot of them know the songs, and they're almost ready to sing along," said Kuehlhorn, an OTP veteran who has performed in about 130 productions at the community theater and has worked behind the scenes in dozens of others. "But it's one of the old plays and so the younger generation may not know it."
The OTP version also stars Daniel Jablonski as Cervantes'/Quixote's devoted manservant/sidekick Pancho Sanchez, and Mychelle Hopkins and Susan Johnson as the passionate and headstrong Aldonza.
First-time OTP director Betsy Willis said she double-cast the latter role after wrestling with a dilemma: too much talent.
Hopkins and Johnson both were professional actresses who performed with the likes of Disney and The Royal Shakespeare Company.
"They both have great stage presence and great singing voices," Willis said. "Splitting the role means they get to do what they love, but also get to spend time with their families. They're not giving up four weekends in the month of November to be here. It's really the true meaning of community theater in that everybody gets a chance and we try to make it work for them."
Willis said the show is the first to use mechanical stairs, which raise and lower from the balcony with the foreboding clank of chains.
Creating a gloomy prison atmosphere from which there is no escape made set and lighting design crucial to the play's success.
"I want everybody to remember all the way through that these prisoners are prisoners. They never actually leave prison. They just take on parts in (Cervantes') story," said Willis, whose prisoners also remain on stage in prison uniforms throughout the show to delineate between the two stories.
Willis, who doubles as OTP's development director, said the show's theme has been inspirational for cast, OTP members and theater officials as they consider renovating and expanding their building on Eighth and Cass.
The company has been up against impossible dreams in the past, including a year in 1998-99 when it was without a home as it struggled to bring the building up to fire codes.
"When we talked about producing this show, we latched onto the song, 'The Impossible Dream,'" she said. "It represents a lot of what we try to do here in bringing live theater to audiences. A lot of what has been done here has been an impossible dream."
"Man of La Mancha" plays Nov. 2-4, 8-11, 15-18 and 23-24 at 7:30 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Nov. 4, 11 and 18.
Tickets are $25 for adults, $23 for seniors and students and $14 for children at oldtownplayhouse.com and TREATickets.com.