Chicago Theater Review: MAN OF LA MANCHA (Light Opera Works in Evanston)

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by Dan Zeff on August 13, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

IT’S A PLEASURE TO BE IN HARMS’ WAY

It’s been quite a year for veteran Chicagoland actor James Harms; after receiving critical acclaim nationally for his performance in The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman, he now gives a dominating performance leading the Light Opera Works revival of Man of La Mancha, in which Harms plays the famous Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, who morphs into a dotty Spanish squire (aka Don Quixote de la Mancha) and gets to sing one of the great lump-in-the-throat songs in American musical theater. Harms has always been a versatile actor, but La Mancha demonstrates his strong singing voice, well-able to handle the emotional peaks of “The Impossible Dream.”

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Man of La Mancha in ChicagoLa Mancha came out of nowhere to become one of the biggest hits of the 1960’s. Nobody could have predicted that a successful show could be constructed out of a novel about a crazy old man wandering around Spain in the early seventeenth century trying to right the wrongs of the world. But Dale Wasserman’s potent story-within-a-story book and the strong score by Mitch Leigh (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics) have captivated audiences for nearly half a century.

The show begins in a Spanish prison on a terrific set by Adam Veness that looks straight out of a Piranesi engraving. Cervantes and his valet have just been tossed into the prison to await the judgment of the Spanish Inquisition after Cervantes took his job as a tax collector too seriously and foreclosed on a monastery. The inmates in the prison put Cervantes on mock trial and to defend himself he acts out the story of Don Quixote with the inmates assuming roles of characters in the novel.

It’s a clever concept as Cervantes takes the role of the addled Don Quixote de la Mancha, who suffers from an excess of idealism as he wanders the land, battling what he perceives as evil. The plot eventually hones in on Quixote, in his delusional self-appointed role as knight errant, adopting a slattern named Aldonza as his lady of virgin purity.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Man of La Mancha in Chicago

Along with some distinctly Broadway style comedy, the show takes a strong stand in favor of idealism doing battle with realism, a term for the cruelties and hypocrisies of human behavior. The musical’s philosophy is laudable if not very profound or original, but its noble thoughts place the book at a higher intellectual level than the great majority of musicals in the last 100 years.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Man of La Mancha in ChicagoThe Light Opera Works, as usual, presents a pull-out-all-the-stops staging with almost two dozen performers accompanied by a full pit orchestra and a wardrobe of authentic period costumes designed by Jesus Perez; the high-quality design credits extend to Andrew H. Meyers (lighting) and Christopher Kusek (sound).

Harms is the man of the moment, but he gets lots of help from Cary Lovett as the comical but sympathetic Sancho Panza and radiant singing by Bill Chamberlain as the padre. There is also good work by Edward MacLennan, a tall and rangy actor who plays Quixote’s adversary Dr. Carasco, the humorless and compassionless realist. Greg Zawada provides a striking stage presence as the brutal leader of a pack of muleteers. Other quality supporting performances come from Alex Honzen as the governor and the innkeeper, Peter Eli Johnson as the barber, Jordan Yantz as Quixote’s niece, and Yvonne Strumecki as the housekeeper. They are all united by their fine vocal skills to make this a very well-sung and well-acted production.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Man of La Mancha in Chicago

On the quibble side, Colette Todd lacks the gutter-smart cynicism necessary to bring Aldonza fully alive. She has a good operatic voice, though her delivery got a little shrill in the second act “Aldonza” number. Rudy Hogenmiller’s directing is fine but the choreography doesn’t fully capture the violence of the two second act fight scenes at the inn. But the show’s virtues shine through sufficiently to make this a treat for fans of Man of La Mancha, which must include every theater lover who enjoys a dramatic musical with a moist-eyed emotional final scene.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Man of La Mancha in Chicago

It’s become a tradition to end a review of a Light Opera Works production by lamenting that so much talent and so many theatrical resources are poured into a show that runs only nine performances. This is a fine revival and you would be well-advised to get your tickets now.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Man of La Mancha in Chicagophotos by Jasmin Shah

Man of La Mancha
Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium in Evanston
ends on August 26, 2012
for tickets, call 847 920 5360
or visit Light Opera Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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