So what do you want from your Don Quixote? The standard model at regional light-opera companies is a virile traveling baritone, replete with a bravura macho personality to match his massive pipes. Robert Goulet, whom I saw several times touring in "Man of La Mancha" in the 1990s, is the epitome of this self-contained type. But James Harms, the star of the very striking Light Opera Works production of the much-loved 1965 title (which contains such stirring numbers as "The Impossible Dream" and "To Each His Dulcinea") is not of that ilk.
Harms, whose credits are formidable, is no slouch in the vocal department, but at this point in his career, he's not going to raise the roof of the Cahn Auditorium. Frankly, he has more important business in hand. Harms is a good bit older than your standard Don Quixote/Cervantes (it's a play within a play) and a great deal more vulnerable. But what serves this piece so well is not just Harms' very evident morality, which is one of the crucial themes of this piece. It's his fascination with other people on the stage with him.
I've seen Don Quixotes aplenty sing "Dulcinea" like they're far more in love with the sound of their own voice than with the ideal woman the character thinks he sees before him, disguised as a rough-hewn wench named Aldonza. But when Harms sings a line like "I have sought thee, sung thee, dreamed thee, Dulcinea!" it comes with the quality of an aching need. And that helps Colette Todd, who plays Aldonza/Dulcinea, to raise her own game and return the connection. It is, consistently, a very moving relationship.
Rudy Hogenmiller's laudably ambitious production reaches, and generally finds, darker themes than are typical in this company's gestalt. "Man of La Mancha" is not, perhaps, for all tastes (the audience Saturday night in Evanston was unusually thin for a Light Opera Works opening), but even if Dale Wasserman's lurching book is a tad, well, quixotic, Mitch Leigh's music is thrilling. As is typical with this company, the production comes with a full orchestra, this time under the striking and lively baton of Nyela Basney, who shapes this orchestra rather more theatrically and zestfully than has been the case recently. There are unusual rewards in hearing the original orchestrations of "Man of La Mancha," which contains not the typical violin sections but a percussive-heavy combination of brass, woodwinds and flamenco-style guitars, one of which is played from the stage.
One other calling card of this show (inspired, of course, by Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote") is the way The Padre, a hitherto minor character, suddenly pops out and sings "To Each His Dulcinea," a melody of such beauty it would surely stop even Usain Bolt in his tracks. That moment of beauty works splendidly here, thanks to Bill Chamberlain. And the famous role of Sancho Panza, warmly played here by Cary Lovett, carries on the theme of poignancy over comedy, which matches where Hogenmiller is going with this whole show.
Production values are variable at this company. But the single set of this show means that there are none of the usual troubled transitions in a difficult, rented theater. Instead, Adam L. Veness has designed a rich and varied theatrical environment, evocatively lit by Andrew H. Meyers and replete with two drawbridges over which the prisoners of the inquisition may not cross. You get a rich sense of purgatory.
Harms recently appeared in Robert Falls' "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman Theatre, which also imagined such a place of waiting and despair, albeit one without this kind of music in the air. As his performance deepened as it went on Saturday night, I kept thinking that Harms was really continuing the same kind of work he did with Falls: staring down death, fighting for a legacy, holding off depression and making himself dream the impossible dream. That, Harms seemed to be saying, is the only way to stay alive with beauty and meaning.
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $32-$92 at 847-920-5360 or lightoperaworks.com