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Highly Recommended! To Reach the Unreachable Star

Highly Recommended!

Chicago theatre has always prided itself on its daring, new interpretations of classic plays and musicals. The results are often eye opening, shedding new light on an old familiar work or theme. Dale Wasserman’s beloved, brilliant Broadway musical, with its stirring score by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, was unusual and groundbreaking for its time. Set inside a Spanish dungeon during the Inquisition, the story of Don Quixote unfolds as a play-within-a-play. Author, poet and playwright, Miguel de Cervantes is led down into a dark cesspool of humanity to await questioning. But before that can happen, the man is subjected to a mock trial by his fellow prisoners. He, and his devoted assistant, become the fictional Don Quixote and his squire Sancho, who then perform a charade as their defense. By the the final curtain, Cervantes has moved and inspired both his fellow inmates and the audience with his inspiring story, celebrating man’s imagination and unbreakable human spirit.

Nick Bowling, Chicago’s respected, multi-Jeff Award-winning director, takes this classic 1964 musical and gives it a fresh coat of paint, making it feel new and contemporary. His unique vision, while keeping the same basic structure as the original, transports the story to the holding cell of a modern-day prison. Under its harsh, unforgiving florescent lighting, an actor, playwright and part-time tax collector, arrested for foreclosing on a church, is thrown into a barren room, inhabited by thieves and murderers. He and his assistant are instantly set upon by these thugs, who threaten to destroy his written work, until Cervantes convinces the ten cutthroats of his right to defend himself. Cervantes’ defense is a play that involves the other prisoners as his supporting characters, a musical that holds the audience firmly in the palm of its hand.

Mr. Bowling, whose critically outstanding work has been enjoyed both at TimeLine Theatre and at the Marriott, guides this clever, thoughtful, revisionary production. The old adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it comes to mind. However, Bowling and his talented cast and artistic team have made this musical feel more immediate than ever. It’s no longer a romantic play set in a far-off time and place, but a doleful, modern drama occurring in the harsh here man1and now. Bowling has also streamlined the musical, pacing his production with the urgency of a man whose time is at a premium. The director’s choice to eliminate some unnecessary dialogue, as well as an unnecessary scene involving Quixote and Sancho being swindled by a band of roving gypsies, is particularly wise. The episode doesn’t add anything new to the story and it keeps the one-act to a manageable 90-minute running time. There’s so much immediacy and validity to Marriott’s concept, but be warned: this is not your parents’ “Man of La Mancha.”

Making his Marriott debut, Nathaniel Stampley brings uncompromising stature, a glorious voice and so much truth to his portrayal of Cervantes/Don Quixote. This charismatic actor, known primarily for his superb work on Broadway in “Porgy and Bess,” “The Color Purple” and “The Lion King,” enters the stage and immediately takes command of this production. He never releases his grip until the final tear-jerking moment. His performance focuses on an honest relationship with the other characters, particularly with Sancho and Aldonza, as well as his magnificent vocal prowess, shown to full excellence in songs like the title anthem, the lovely “Dulcinea,” and the show’s signature moment, “The Impossible Dream.”

Chicago favorite, Danni Smith returns to the Marriott stage as Aldonza/Dulcinea. She is unbelievable in this role, and almost unrecognizable, with her short, spiked hair and soaring vocals. Typically seen in more genteel roles, such as Mother in “A Christmas Story,” Ms. Smith creates a cynical, downtrodden kitchen slut for whom life has been nothing but pain and humiliation. For Aldonza, reality is raw, bitter and unrelenting and she’s given up any hope or dreams. When this madman enters her world she sees him as just another man out to use and abuse her. But watch this actress as her Aldonza subtly sheds her protective shell and evolves into a trusting, confident young woman. During Quixote’s heartfelt anthem to living life to its fullest, “The Quest,” he musically urges Aldonza “To reach the unreachable star.” At this moment we finally witness the emergence of Dulcinea, the Lady of Quixote’s vision.

Richard Ruiz, known for his Off Broadway work and several National Tours, is terrific as Sancho, Quixote’s sidekick, squire and the show’s welcome comic relief. As the “fat little man stuffed with proverbs,” Mr. Ruiz is confident, articulate and possesses a beautifully trained singing voice. He also displays excellent comic timing and brings pathos to his relationship with his master. In addition to his duet with Stampley, “I, Don Quixote,” Ruiz brings a welcome, light touch to “The Missive,” “A Little Gossip” and, particularly, “I Really Like Him.” Veteran actor James Harms, who’s enchanted area audiences in so many character roles, including playing Don Quixote in Light Opera Works’ production of this very musical, is a wise, but empathetic and funny Padre. His impressive voice soars through songs like the beautiful “To Each His Dulcinea,” “The Psalm” and the very funny “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” sung with Lillian Castillo’s delightful kewpie doll portrayal of Antonia, Quixote’s niece, and Cassie Slater as his overly cautious Housekeeper.

Craig Spidle is first-rate in the duel roles of the self-appointed Governor of the holding cell and the Innkeeper of the man2play-within-the-play. He brings authority and gravitas to this part, as well as a good deal of dry humor. Matt Mueller, who lately seems to be settling into a niche of playing dramatic antagonists, is appropriately conniving and menacing as the Duke/Dr. Carrasco/the Knight of the Mirrors. Bobby Daye is humorous and likable as the Barber, with his “Golden Helmet of Mambrino;” and the distinguished ensemble of Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Andrew Mueller and Brandon Springman effortlessly double as prisoners, onstage musicians and Muleteers.

The Marriott Theatre has once again put its own distinctive stamp on another classic from Broadway’s Golden Age. For this winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and a show that’s enjoyed four different Broadway revivals, as well as several National Tours, it’s hard to imagine a fresher, more contemporary staging of such a familiar story. Nick Bowling has accomplished this feat, much as he did with Marriott’s recent exciting “City of Angels.” Guiding this cast of twelve excellent actor/singer/dancers (who never leave the stage), Mr. Bowling has set his production inside a 21st century prison, sparsely designed with austere authenticity by Jeffrey D. Kmiec, and lit with marvelous creativity by Jesse Klug. Ryan T. Nelson’s musical direction and Patti Garwood’s musical supervision is, as always, impeccable, as is Ryan Bourque’s fight choreography. This all-Equity production is smart, streamlined and sophisticated, bringing all the heart and soul of this much-loved musical back to Chicagoland.