From the moment Fairfield Warde High School senior Johnny Shea, aka Don Quixote, grabbed the audience last weekend with his opening number "Man of La Mancha," we knew we were in for an unforgettable evening. There was depth and richness in his voice that comes along rarely in a high school performer.

As the musical "Man of La Mancha" unfolds," Shea, as author and poet Miguel de Cervantes, has been placed in a prison cell for crimes against the leaders of the Inquisition in Spain. To better explain to his fellow prisoners the unfairness of his imprisonment, Cervantes creates a story for his defense. It's about a delusional old man, Alonzo Quihana, who evolves into Don Quixote de la Mancha, a wanabe knight, accompanied by his delightful, bumbling companion Sancho Panza. Sancho was played beautifully by unassuming Conner Frawley, who gave us many delightful moments and a lot of humor.

We were immediately swept to an inn, which Quixote dubbed a "castle." There, we met Shea's leading lady, Aldonza, whom Quixote calls his "lady Dulcinea," played by Diana Barlaam.

Aldonza, the saucy, less-than-virtuous bar wench, captivated the audience immediately with her powerful number, "It's All the Same," sung to a group of low-life muleteers, all anxious to have their way with her. Spewing venom with lyrics like "Born on a dung heap to die on a dung heap, a strumpet men use and forget!" Barlaam's Aldonza was simultaneously spicey and pitiful.

Shea's and Barlaam's first numbers set the tone for this musical, which my wife and I saw 45 years ago in San Francisco with the late Richard Kiley was the lead.

As the rest of Warde's production unfolded, there were very few disappointing moments or songs.

Warde Director, Mark Frattaroli, captured the essence of "Man of La Mancha" in his director's comments. "It's not glitzy or showy or typically Broadway ... The show is relatively simple ... It tells a story based on reality which explores the idea of imagination, the balance between the world outside and the inner world of our minds and feelings. It questions the everyday assumption that what we see is all that matters.

"But the play is ultimately a cry of the romantic spirit revealing a transformation of humanity both within its `imaginary' and `real' worlds, brought on by seeing the greatness of what may be rather than merely accepting what is."

I'll be honest. I didn't come for the story behind "Man of La Mancha." For me the story and how the playwright told it are merely a backdrop for some of the most beautiful words and music ever written for theater."

For instance, Lindsey Reuter in the role of the Padre in Cervantes' story, touched the audience with her beautiful rendition of "To Each His Dulcinea." Her interpretation of the words really helped us see how Quixote could have seen Aldonza as his lady, his vision.

Almost directly after that number, Shea offered the essence of his quest for knighthood and virtue with the show stopping song "The Impossible Dream." His performance, straight from Quixote's heart and soul, nearly moved me to tears.

Who among us, I had to wonder at that moment, hasn't dreamed an Impossible dream, no matter how hopeless, and followed an unreachable star. I certainly have. Johnny Shea reminded us that we all have to keep on dreaming."

Only as Cervantes' story within a story ended -- and Quixote saw his real image as a delusional old man on his deathbed -- did the power of the story begin to emerge. Aldonza arrived at the old man's house. Realizing that she no longer had to accept her sorry life, she had actually evolved into the beautiful Dulcinea, finally seeing what Quixote had seen all along. Reprising his song to her, Dulcinea helped Quixote to remember his quest and achieve the impossible dream, allowing nobility to triumph.

Mark Frattaroli shared a comment about Johnny Shea that reinforced what "Man of La Mancha" was all about. "The kids really pulled it together during tech week, which went surprisingly smoothly. I owe a lot to Johnny Shea. He was not only great as Quixote, he was a rock during the entire rehearsal period. The show was built on him, and he handled it with ease."

I couldn't agree more, but I will always feel that this show is more about the music than the story. Without powerful musical talent, the show would easily have fallen flat, and Frattaroli did a masterful job of selecting the finest talent for his leads and supporting performers.

We could see, throughout the show, that Johnny Shea and Diana Barlaam with their strong musical performances really brought out the best in their fellow actors. That night, we saw an entire cast live its impossible dream and make it come true.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.