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Highly recommended! At Marriott, a magnificent ‘Man of La Mancha’ rooted in reality

Highly recommended!

“Man of La Mancha” — a monumental hit when it opened on Broadway in 1965, but a work revived with considerably less frequency than many other classics — is a great puzzle box of a musical whose sophisticated storytelling operates on multiple levels.

Among the many remarkable things about director Nick Bowling’s raw, superbly cast, profoundly moving new production at the Marriott Theatre is the absolute clarity with which he interweaves each layer of the tale, a story inspired by both a crucial moment in the life of the great Spanish Renaissance writer Miguel de Cervantes (who, like Shakespeare, died exactly 400 years ago), and by his most fabled character, Don Quixote, an elderly country squire hellbent on becoming a knight capable of combat and chivalry.

The musical’s book writer, Dale Wasserman, devised this brilliant framing device, and, paired with a near Mozartian score by Mitch Lee (music) and Joe Darion (lyrics), the show taps into the very core of Cervantes’ masterpiece. Staring directly into the most hardcore aspects of human existence, “Man of La Mancha” asks these questions: Given the essential brutality of life (whether it is experienced by those in prison, at the very bottom of society, or by those in the grip of old age), what is the key to survival? Is it just more misery and despair, or can the case be made for the glorious power of art and the life-enhancing magic of the imagination, which can serve as a lifeline, and suggest the path to a more humane world?

There is another question, too. Who, in the final analysis, is more mad: the pragmatist who sees nothing but cruel reality, or the dreamer who finds escape and solace in the sort of ideal vision of the world that can be conjured through fantasy?

Timeless questions. And Bowling (in league with designers Jeffrey D. Kmiec and Jesse Klug) gives us a timeless, minimalist backdrop of little more than benches and fluorescent lights as he and his actors bring to life the world of Cervantes (Nathaniel Stampley), the poet (and tax collector) who, along with his manservant, Sancho (Richard Ruiz), is hauled into a prison by the Spanish Inquisition and charged with foreclosing on a monastery.

When attacked by fellow prisoners, the writer begs for a “trial,” and puts into play his most valuable possession: the manuscript about Don Quixote’s adventures. Cervantes turns himself into the squire, with his fellow prisoners taking on the other roles. At least one of them, the much-abused Aldonza (Danni Smith), is transformed in the process.
From the moment Don Quixote and Sancho gallop away to the title song — with nothing but a mop and a walker to suggest their horse — the audience is hooked for this intermission-less ride. Bowling has steered clear of any Broadway musical “glamor.” And the actors’ superb dramatic chops and highly individualistic voices (aided and abetted by the splendid music direction by Ryan T. Nelson, an exceptionally lush sound by the orchestra conducted by Patti Garwood, and expert sound design by Robert E. Gilmartin) do the rest.

Stampley, who began his career in Chicago and arrives here now with a slew of Broadway and national touring credits, is a handsome, charismatic actor, and younger than many ordinarily cast in the role. But he moves with such easy grace and believability as he shifts from Cervantes to Quixote that you never question him as either. And the conversational truthfulness of his performance of “The Impossible Dream” makes it sound newly minted. As for Ruiz’s Sancho, the actor is so instantly lovable, without being at all hammy, that he forges a special place in your heart.

And then there is the fearless and ferocious Danni Smith, who has cropped her hair into a blunt punk cut, removed all makeup and dared to be unattractive. No one can play tougher, and at the same time no one can seem more vulnerable. And Smith’s voice can do anything, including hitting all the top notes without sounding distractingly “operatic.”

Crucial to the impact of this production is the stunning supporting cast. In the role of the Padre, James Harms — who in past years has played the title role — all but stops the show with his exquisite rendering of “To Each His Dulcinea,” and he is joined in winning form by Matt Mueller, Lillian Castillo and Cassie Slater in the hypocrisy-filled “I’m Only Thinking of Him.” Craig Spidle brings just the right mocking tone to his roles as the Governor/Innkeeper who helps dub “the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.” And Bobby Daye, Andrew Mueller, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Brandon Springman add to the show’s clarion sound.

With this production (as well as such excellent recent mountings of “Spring Awakening,” “Evita,” and “The King and I”), the Marriott feels reborn — clearly thriving on the ever-growing musical theater competition from storefronts and other theaters in the city, as well as from several major suburban theaters. In fact, the intimacy and brilliance of this “Man of La Mancha” suggests why so many national tours now seem almost unnecessary.