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Chasing windmills Kavinoky makes the quest again with 'La Mancha'

In the early 17th century, Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes wrote a largely autobiographical tale -- included were the author's own scrapes with the law, a good deal of wandering and adventuring, prison time, excommunication from the Catholic Church -- mostly, it seems, to get out of debt. Well, he only missed the big bucks by three centuries.

The story's protagonist is an innocent abroad, the knight errant Don Quixote, described as either "the wisest madman or the maddest wiseman the world has ever known." Quixote travels the countryside in search of wrongs to right, mistaking windmills for dragons, inns for castles and strumpets for damsels in distress. His squire, Sancho Panza, follows dutifully, albeit dumbfounded as his lord, dubbed the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, drifts into dementia, causing his family no end of worry.

Librettist Dale Wasserman, composer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion adapted the sprawling Spanish Inquisition story, and in 1965 their version, "Man of La Mancha," opened on Broadway and has seldom been out of production since. The Kavinoky Theatre had an acclaimed "La Mancha" nine years ago. It's back on the same stage with Steve Cooper and Norm Sham reprising their roles as Quixote and Sancho, respectively. Paul Todaro directs this time around; a skilled and schooled ensemble has made his job easier.

There is great life and energy in this play-within-a-play. The score still charms and rouses with little ditties, pretty ballads and a few take-home favorites, "The Quest" or "The Impossible Dream."

Quixote's infatuation with the earthy kitchen wench Aldonza -- he calls her Dulcinea -- spawns several wonderful songs, which are a language lover's delights: "It's All the Same," "What Does He Want of Me?" and the powerful "Aldonza." Maggie Zindle sings these songs with clarity and fire; she returns to the Kavinoky after many years away.

Steve Cooper's voice will never overwhelm but he is sincere and solid; big when he has to be; dottering here, focused there; sometimes cagey, often crazed as Quixote, who's eventually convicted by his fellow prisoners as an "idealist, bad poet and an honest man." As Sancho, Sham is again the perfect foil, again lovable on "The Missive" and "I Really Like Him." Cooper and Sham, together again and terrific.

Vital others -- this cast is rich in experience, many of them content just to lend strength to the ensemble -- include Tom Zindle, Sheila McCarthy, Tim Newell, Michele Roberts and Lou Colaiacovo. Plenty of talent around the edges, too in Leah Russo, Michael Walline, Bill Lovern, Joseph Wiens, Bobby Cooke, Doug Weyand and others.

The grungy intimidating set is by David King; choreography by Michele Gigante. Fran Landis is musical director, and fight scenes have been designed by Steve Vaughn. Brian Cavanagh and Tom Makar work their usual technical wizardry. Sarah Marks does yeoman work with costume design.

Director Todaro has staged "Man of La Mancha" without intermission -- it's slightly over two hours but a good choice. The intriguing story -- remarkably fresh -- and the awesome score need no interruption.

MAN OF LA MANCHA

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

WHEN: Through Oct. 23

WHERE: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.

TICKETS: $10 to $36

INFO: 829-7668

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