In a season when new musicals seem to be an impossible dream, musical theater lovers must content themselves with revisiting past glories, and the creditable revival of "Man of La Mancha" at the Lyric Opera House is a solid reminder of those glories.
It's also an opportunity to see a mint-condition re-creation of this 1965 modern musical classic, with its majestic score by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, and its shrewdly crafted book, in which writer Dale Wasserman combined the story of Miguel de Cervantes, imprisoned during the Inquisition, with that of the cockeyed idealistic hero of his masterpiece, "Don Quixote." Albert Marre, director of the original production of "La Mancha," has retained the original staging, set and costume designs, yet managed to keep the show both faithful and fresh.
This is hardly the first Marre- directed revival of "La Mancha" to come through these parts, but it is a far more even-handed effort than his 1992 effort, which played Washington's National Theatre, starring the late Raul Julia and Sheena Easton.
What makes this production shine so brightly are the strong performances of John Cullum in the dual roles of Cervantes and Quixote, and Ann Crumb as the wanton scullion, Aldonza, whom Quixote insists on addressing as Lady Dulcinea.
Though Cullum has attracted his widest audience as Holling Vincoeur on CBS' "Northern Exposure," he has spent most of his career on the stage. Much of that has been in musicals, including this one, in which he was one of the replacements for Richard Kiley, who created the title role.
Three decades later, Cullum's voice is still up to the demands of Quixote's challenging statement of purpose: "The Quest (The Impossible Dream)." And, as an added plus, "Northern Exposure" fans will recognize that he imbues the role with the gentle spirit of his TV character -- another aging man whose youthful heart is touched by a younger woman.
Cullum's performance is matched, if not surpassed, by Crumb, an actress whose stirring singing voice has a low end that captures the earthy tones of Aldonza and a high end that suggests the sweetness Quixote sees when he calls her "Dulcinea."
The large cast features numerous veterans of previous "La Mancha" productions, including the original. Darryl Ferrer is congenial and droll as Quixote's loyal, but timid, squire, and David Holliday is sympathetic as the tolerant innkeeper who reluctantly knights Quixote. In addition, as the errant knight's hypocritically concerned niece, housekeeper, doctor and priest, Rebecca Spender, Marceline Decker, Tony Gilbert and David Wasson deliver a splendid rendition of the musically layered, textually sarcastic quartet, "I'm Only Thinking of Him."
To 1990s eyes, the almost slow-motion choreography of the fight scenes looks tepid. Yet many of the overtly theatrical elements in designer Howard Bay's set are as thrilling as ever -- from the steeply raked dungeon floor to the giant staircase that descends to admit new Inquisition prisoners and send others to their doom.
But then, one of the chief glories of "Man of La Mancha" is the way it exults in its own theatricality. After all, what is theater if not a dream realized on stage? When skeptical Aldonza asks Don Quixote to explain his odd behavior, he tells her, "I hope to add some measure of grace to the world." That he does, and so does this production.
'MAN OF LA MANCHA'
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Audio-described performances at 2 p.m. May 27 and 8 p.m. May 30; sign-interpreted performances at 8 p.m. May 31 and 2 p.m. June 2. Through June 4
9- Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407