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Profound 'Man of La Mancha' achieves its big dreams

★★★★ (out of 4)

Pulling into a Skokie Dunkin' Donuts — please do not judge — on the way back from the Marriott Theatre's atypically audacious new production of "Man of La Mancha" on Wednesday night, I glanced up at CNN. "Politics in an age of terror," the crawl practically screeched. Severe, substantial, self-serving faces filled the screen. I watched for a few minutes. There was much tilting at windmills.

Miguel de Cervantes — that formidable linguist and razor-sharp satirist of 17th century Spanish literature — would no doubt have been amused at the fusion of rabid commentary, a multicultural clientele and powdered sugar. He likely would have noted that there is little new about an age of terror, merely changes in form and in who is terrified the most. But if, like me, you had walked into that establishment with "The Impossible Dream" still ringing in your ears, I think you would have felt the absence of Don Quixote, too. Quite profoundly so.

That's because the 1964 musical — book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion — is not an adaptation of "Don Quixote," per se, nor of Cervantes' real life, but a transformation of Cervantes' themes of comedic self-deception into the possibility of romantic optimism. It is written for Broadway, after all. Actually, a great production of this work — and Nick Bowling's radical, contemporized, profoundly ambitious effort for the Marriott falls into that category — makes it clear that dreaming the impossible dream is really the only logical choice we have, given the finality and rapidity of our deaths. As Nathaniel Stampley's Don Quixote notes early in the piece to his loyal Sancho (the self-effacing Richard Ruiz), there is a solution for everything else. But not that.

If we have not pursued our quixotic quest, then where will we be?

Listen to the political discourse now, of course, and you rarely hear of the righting of unrightable wrongs or the fighting for rights without question or pause. Too idealistic for the moment. Take the Brexit crew in the United Kingdom: It has been much easier for these partisans to articulate what they were escaping from than describe what they wish to move toward. By contrast, Cervantes' Don Quixote is all about chasing the perfect future — whatever we decide it to be. As they sing in the show, "To Each His Dulcinea."

Which brings me to Danni Smith, who happens to be doing the best work of her Chicago career in that very role, transforming the typical musical lead role into a fierce, feminist revolutionary. Smith is costumed by Nancy Missimi to look like a bartender in a biker bar — shaved head and all. The men who pursue her are very much her physical and spiritual inferiors in this production — but all that power among the idiots has forged a loneliness, which leads her to Mr. Tilting at Windmills. What else is she going to do? Here is a man who has sought her, dreamed her, sung her. A consummation devoutly to be wished.

Smith's blunt and furious determination, which lends this character inestimable substance, lives simultaneously with her rich interpretation of Leigh's lush and romantic music, which is this production's most formidable weapon. You may not have realized it if, like me, you remember the Robert Goulet tour — all kind hearts, coronets, great hair and bravura baritones — but "Man of La Mancha" actually is all about the contrasts of earth and sky: captivity versus freedom; love versus violence; hope versus death.

Chicago has a distinguished history of very powerful productions of this piece — at Light Opera Works in 2012, featuring James Harms, who plays the padre here with great poignancy, and, memorably, at Court Theatre in 2005, wherein the actor Steve Wallem sang "To Each His Dulcinea" so beautifully I can hear it still.

But I think Bowling has found things those other, more stylized shows did not. With the help of a simple but inspired design from Jeffrey D. Kmiec — who creates a look no Marriott subscriber will have seen before — he obviously persuaded his producers to finally take some real risks and embrace the profound changes in musical theater. It has paid off beautifully, including the jettisoning of the intermission, which intensifies everything, even if it's a stretch for some.

Bowling has forged an outer frame of notable degradation, with the prisoners led by the unstinting Craig Spidle, rooting the show in a really intense reality to which the ensemble actors — the likes of Andrew and Matt Mueller and Lillian Castillo, among others — fully commit. It took the opening night audience members a while to buy into what was transpiring, but once they were won over by the musical interpretations they opened themselves up to the ideas. Palpably so.

Stampley, who is at the heart of the show, embraces the enigma of his role — although I kept wanting him to reveal more colors, to peel away more and more layers as the show progressed. He only goes so far, but it's still a very likable and lovely performance. The final scenes, when Don Quixote confronts his failing mind — a kind of 17th century version of Alzheimer's, you might say — are, for me, anyway, almost unbearably honest, revealing things in Wasserman's book you did not know were there, with Smith's love and protection all the more powerful for the length of the voyage she has had to take.

Her knight is worth it, you feel. So is this show.