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'Impossible Dream' Realized in Marriott's MAN OF LA MANCHA

Keeping hope alive is such a pervasive theme in a presidential election year. Candidates share their visions of a better future for all. Most of us are too cynical to believe them. But if you have the good fortune of seeing Marriott Theatre's latest musical, MAN OF LA MANCHA, Don Quixote's steadfast belief in the inherent beauty and goodness of humanity will have you believing all will work out as it should come November.

From the haunting opening notes to the robust finale, there's not a wrong note in this production directed by Nick Bowling.

Bowling stays true to the original Broadway tale, written by Dale Wasserman, with music and lyrics by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, respectively. But he adds a fresh perspective to the setting -- a holding cell where we meet the writer Miguel de Cervantes, whose blunder at his day job (tax collector) has him awaiting the Spanish Inquisition. Clues that this isn't a 17th century jail: laptop, cellphone, Army fatigues, baseball cap, golf club, megaphone ... this could be the Cook County lockup at 26th and California.

All 12 cast members are onstage the entire length of the play, which runs about an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. And there's not a weak link in the bunch; kudos to all involved behind the scenes, especially music director Ryan T. Nelson, production manager Deya Friedman and fight choreographer Ryan Bourque.

Nathaniel Stampley superbly leads the charge as Cervantes, whose fellow prisoners "charge" him with "being an idealist, a bad writer and an honest man." He cops to all of it but persuades them to let him tell his story before they burn his manuscript. In the telling, Cervantes plays the part of the hero, Don Quixote, and enlists the prisoners' help in playing the other parts, and thus begins the transformation of thought within the confines of the cell.

Stampley's operatic baritone -- bold, steady, sweet, somber -- is the glue that holds the show together, from the earnest "Dulcinea" to the ever-popular anthem "The Impossible Dream," which could easily overpower the intimate theater-in-the-round, but never does.

Speaking of Dulcinea, Danni Smith is a bolt of lightning. Her butch/steampunk Aldonza/Dulcinea is all hard edges and heartbreaking vulnerability. This show has as tight an ensemble as I've ever seen on a stage, but I had to pick a standout, it would be Smith. The raw honesty of her heart-rending performance is palpable.

As Quixote's sidekick, Sancho, Richard Ruiz is as likable as Smith is vulnerable. Stampley and Ruiz's duet at the start of the show, "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)," lets the audience know they're in for something special. They're a buddy comedy in the making; the loyal sentiment is infectious to the end.

The rest of the cast members have their shining moments as well: Marriott veteran James Harms, who is well acquainted with this show having played Cervantes/Quixote in other productions, excels as the Padre. Lillian Castillo and Cassie Slater join him in "I'm Only Thinking of Him," a well-executed trio that becomes a quartet when the versatile Matt Mueller joins in. Craig Spidle as the Governor/Innkeeper brings just the right amount of disdainful humor, especially in "Knight of the Woeful Countenance."

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Bobby Daye, Andrew Mueller and Brandon Springman round out the cast and chorus like seasoned journeymen, acting as de facto pit members by adding percussive accompaniment via objects on stage. (Props to props designer Sally Weiss!) Springman, Andrew Mueller and Matt Mueller also play guitars throughout, adding an authentic Spanish flair to the mix. It's all very seamless.

Jeffrey D. Kmiec's set design is brilliant. Simple benches are moved and maneuvered to create something different in each scene: a bed, a bar, a tree, a church... and the pit orchestra is so pitch-perfect, I am compelled to list every member: Patti Garwood, Brian Shannon, Emily Beisel, Zack Thomas, Steve Duncan, Dave Saenger, Trevor Jones and Andy Wilmoth.

Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is a bit of a haul from downtown Chicago, but don't let that deter you from making your way to the northern suburb. The production team there consistently produces shows that rival anything you might see in the city's big theaters - and parking is free and you won't pay a fortune for tickets.