There's spitting, hissing, fighting, knighting, slapping, pinching, jeering and leering. That's not all. And that's only in the first 15 minutes of Springfield Community Theatre's lusty production of "Man of La Mancha."

Live theater takes on new meaning here. But the large cast's enthusiasm and spirit make this musical drama-comedy worth the excesses of overacting and ribald behavior.

The plot of "Man of La Mancha" is familiar to most, mostly because of its lead song, "The Impossible Dream," one of those American musical numbers that never shake themselves from our consciousness.

It's sung by Don Quixote (Jozef Anton), created in this story-within-a-story by the poet Cervantes, who tells the tale of the 16th century madman (or wise man, depending on your viewpoint) to the dirty denizens in a prison as he awaits his hearing before the Spanish Inquisition.

To the world around him, Quixote is addled as he tries to fight and live with honesty, charity and goodness in a world of cruelty. His adventures take him and his loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza (Michael Pizzi), to a scurvy inn that Quixote imagines is a noble castle. His mental meanderings also imagine that the scum gathered there are knights, the innkeeper a lord and the lowly kitchen girl and whore, Aldonza (Michelle Rios), the beautiful lady Dulcinea.

The action is mostly in Quixote's lunatic mind, as he strives to become a knight and make Aldonza his own. Not surprisingly, his efforts are greeted with sneering disdain by all around him. In the end, the world pretty much wins, as you know it must, and Quixote's vision becomes the impossible dream he sings of.

But this message play manages still to give hope amid the squalor -- the main theme being, of course, that we should all keep up the quest, "no matter how hopeless, no matter how far." That sensibility, though it can seem at times to be so corny and naive, is one that never fails to make one leave the theater hoping for a better day, to fight wickedness, misery and hunger.

Serious as this all sounds, this is also a pretty loopy musical. Where else could you get such lines as: "Pluck me naked as a scalded chicken" and "The world's a dungheap and we're all maggots crawling on it."

The Springfield gang spares no energy in delivering these zingers. The principals fling themselves around the stage for every number, so much so that you begin to wonder if the troupe has enough medical insurance. Everything from the facial expressions to the singing of the sometimes-plodding score is at full tilt. Director Curt Sommers should probably tone it down a few decibels, because the only real problem with this production is the tendency of most elements from acting to dancing to burst from the cramped stage. With no intermission (a big mistake), it can numb the mind.

Still, all the actors give all they've got and that is a joy to see. Anton as Quixote is noble and understated (the only one), and Pizzi is dizzily perfect as Panza. The poutish Rios eats up the scenery and other performers faster than they can appear, but does manage to show some lovely sweetness. After her rip-roaring behavior, it's surprising. The rest of the cast are well-suited to their roles, and have solidly good voices. The dancing is another matter, because all around it's embarrassingly cloddish.

Mostly though, the play works because all the other elements are done with care. The costumes are creative, the dungeon set realistically dank and the lighting professional. A real plus is the fine orchestra, which plays with great skill and clarity.

Having opened on Broadway in 1965, "Man of La Mancha," you might think, has become dated. But the struggle of the honest man against a base and debauched world continues, sadly, and the play hasn't aged a day.