Light Opera Works: “Man of La Mancha”

Don Quixote takes up arms against a swelling tide of cruelty and mendacity in “Man of La Mancha,” now receiving a soulful revival under director/choreographer Rudy Hogenmiller.

And though the politics of Miguel De Cervantes’ Spanish Inquisition-era novel seem far removed from the existing social landscape, his poetic tug-of-war between the dreamers and the pragmatists, as re-imagined by the musical’s creative team of Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh, and Joe Darion, may resonate in unusual ways this election season.

Book writer Wasserman also wrote the stage version of  Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which, like “Man of La Mancha,” involves an imprisoned group of the downtrodden and downhearted who find hope through an unlikely fellow inmate. But in place of the swaggering McMurphy, or even the middle-aged leading man usually associated with this musical (think Robert Goulet in his prime), Light Opera Works’ Cervantes/Quixote is played by the decidedly older James Harms.

Harms, who most recently broke hearts at the Goodman as the drunk-and-deluded failed newspaperman Jimmy Tomorrow in Robert Falls’ “The Iceman Cometh,” taps into some of the same desperation that drove the “pipe dreams” in that show. But his frail-of-frame, stout-of-heart Cervantes effortlessly exudes cracked nobility and off-kilter courage as he enacts his most famous tale as a play-within-a-play to win over his fellow inmates. (In the show, Cervantes, a tax collector, has earned the wrath of the Church for trying to collect assessments from a monastery.)

Though Harms is the heartbreaker, he receives some gorgeous support from Colette Todd as Aldonza/Dulcinea, the embittered slattern Quixote imagines as a great lady, and from Cary Lovett as the weary but loving servant, Sancho Panza. And if you don’t find yourself sniffling a little during “The Psalm,” as sung by Bill Chamberlain’s Padre, check your pulse.

As always, Light Opera Works offers the increasingly rare opportunity to hear the score with a full union orchestra, here under the baton of Nyela Basney. Adam L. Veness’ set, which features an ominous pair of drawbridges, Andrew H. Meyers’ chiaroscuro lights, and Jesus Perez’ costumes — including a delightfully over-the-top take on the glittery “Knight of the Mirror” — all add visual panache.

This show touches the heart through unadorned sentiment and simplicity. “I’ve never had the courage to believe in nothing,” says Harms’ Cervantes early on. In our own era of noisy acrimony and nihilism, a celebration of “The Impossible Dream” provides welcome balm for the soul.

Through August 26
Tickets $32-$92
Light Opera Works, Cahn Auditorium
600 Emerson Street, Evanston