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Freedom behind bars: the unreachable star just got reached!

A skeptic might argue that Man of La Mancha succeeds because it lifts the guilt of anyone who never read Don Quixote. (Two hours in a theater presumably beat two weeks in a study.) Forget the cynicism. The 1965 musical by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion salutes the power of make-believe: Imprisoned by the Inquisition, author Miguel de Cervantes imagines a presumptive knight errant who will free him–and us–from fear.

The jailhouse setting is a brilliant touch by Dale Wasserman (who also adapted One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest): Much as the madmen in Marat/Sade recreate the French Revolution, rising and falling to its occasions, Wasserman’s victims of the Inquisition reenact Cervantes’ dark comedy. In doing so, they confirm the common touch of Don Quixote’s grand illusion, a mission “to bring grace” to a world sick with despair. (It also helps that no intermission breaks the spell.)

Don Quixote, a crack-brained idealist (hardly the last of his kind), inspires one unlikely disciple. It’s not his “squire” Sancho Panza (here reduced to picturesque proverbs and two silly songs). It’s the kitchen wench Aldonza, an abused slattern who’s transformed by Don Quixote’s selfless devotion into Dulcinea, his damsel in distress.

The same magic happens on this arena stage: The great strength of Nick Bowling’s boldly updated, 105-minute staging for Marriott Theatre is how powerfully it works when reset to a contemporary holding cell, not a 16th century ecclesiastical prison. Mainly “found” props and a crude ceiling, Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s less-is-more set—and Nancy Missimi’s crudely contemporary costumes–are easily the most spartan—and inspired–choices that this rich theater has ever made. It pays off in a hundred ways—by bringing a Spanish story home to roost: Slowly “Don Quixote,” wielding a potent make-believe that escapes a jail, wins over and transforms hardened convicts into true believers. An audience likewise. Ranging from harsh fluorescent lighting to the ambiance of the Don’s dreaming, Jesse King’s lighting changes speak volumes.

It’s most wonderful with Danni Smith who’s both a natural and a force of nature: Very 2016, her Aldonza is a tough-as-nails, man-hating, street survivor with a punk mullet. Smith kinetically conveys Aldonza’s evolution from battered victim to the chosen disciple to continue Quixote’s quest. The most marvelous moment comes when, after repeatedly denying that she could ever be the high-born Dulcinea, Aldonza struggles to convince Don Quixote–who, reduced to sanity, now doubts his mission–that he was right to be crazy and that she was wrong to want to remain Aldonza. This wondrous reversal proves the good that “Don Quixote” did to and for “Dulcinea.” In turn she restores his fantasy so his death can be clean and consistent. Even if Quixote is “cured” by death, the dream is not impossible.

Man of La Mancha remains an insistent show, thundering its uplift through message-mongering anthems, like “To Each His Dulcinea” and the thrilling “The Dubbing/Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” Industriously shaped by Ryan T. Nelson, Leigh’s score either pulses to the rhythms of the bolero (with hints of Flamenco and gypsy music) or to a 60s beat in ballads like Aldonza’s “What Does He Want of Me?” (perfect for a Las Vegas show lounge). But, no question, this tribute to “the wisest madman in the world” can rock a crowd. The stuff of standing ovations, Marriott’s Man of La Mancha embraces the excess and makes it matter. Not for a second does this Broadway tearjerker verge on camp.

Nathaniel Stampley moves magnificently from a forthright, tax-collecting Cervantes to a painfully real Quixote, mentally morphing a torn-up umbrella into a windmill or a shaving basin into the radiant “Golden Helmet of Mambrino.” Stampley’s big solo both raises the roof and brings down the house.Like so much of Bowling’s staging the acting comes before the singing. This “Impossible Dream” puts the emphasis on the lyrics, not the soaring melody: What might seem a catalogue of cliches takes on the desperation of Cervantes’ surroundings and situation, the urgency of this would-be paladin to serve humanity. If this be madness, ‘tis folly to be wise.

Richard Ruiz’ sad-sack sidekick Sancho is salt-of-the-earth solid, whether indulging in “A Little Gossip” to reclaim his knight or simply confessing, “I Really Like Him.” Veteran Chicago artist Craig Spidle as the accommodating Innkeeper transformed into a “castellano” and James Harms (a wonderful Don Quixote in Light Opera Works’ recent revival) as the kindly priest are large as literature and as identifiable as a police line-up. It’s a four-star joy to watch pros be pros.

But the triumph in Man of La Mancha is populist: The ensemble become both agents and audience, reinventing not just a fake knight’s true devotion but the wonder of readers encountering these adventures for the first time. Whether muleteers, dancers, soldiers, prisoners or Moors, the ensemble transform a sprawling and claustrophobic stage (no contradiction given the show’s intensity) into the vastness of Cervantes’ vision–windmills, vigils, tavern brawls and all.

There’s no doubting the sincerity of the show’s jailhouse trial, a more crucial verdict than the glib repression and empty pieties that Cervantes will soon face from the Inquisition. Who better to know “man’s humanity to man” than prisoners who have both given and received the curse of cruelty? Now that torture is again fashionable, Man of La Mancha makes a seemingly impossible dream that much more non-negotiable.