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Man of La Mancha The eponymous hero of this musical classic, which played on Broadway for almost six years (winning Tony awards for Best Musical, Composer and Lyricist, Actor, Director, and Set Design), is not the misguided knight errant Don Quixote, battler of windmills and lost causes, but his creator, Miguel de Cervantes. Author Dale Wasserman, who had previously adapted the Spaniard's thick masterpiece for a TV play, puts Cervantes in prison awaiting the judgment of the Inquisition. As a tax collector, among other professions — writer, soldier, poet, dreamer — he has incurred the royal wrath by foreclosing on a church. A gigantic staircase/drawbridge is lowered into the dark common area of the ghastly prison, and Cervantes walks down, down into the shadowy holding cell where murderers, thieves and the decrepit wait without hope to be called to face the terrors of the Inquisition. The refuse of the prison hold their own mock trial. In defense and to protect his unfinished manuscript from being burned, Cervantes "acts out" the adventures of Don Quixote, using the other prisoners as characters in the musical within the musical. This device is immensely effective as it draws us right into the tale. In musical theater history, Man of La Mancha is known as a "one of." Never again were any of its creators to be so creative. All their subsequent musicals were bombs, but the stars aligned for this one. Theatre Under The Stars' production is faithful to the original without turning the show into a waxworks. Mitch Leigh's music is as fresh as ever with its flamenco-inspired rhythms and bolero accents: It's pop goes to Spain. But everything's of a piece, with superlative lyrics by Joe Darion to match Leigh's evocative tunes. Any show that boasts the soaring "The Quest (The Impossible Dream)," the lilting "To Each His Dulcinea," the pomp of "The Golden Helmet of Mambrino," the vaudeville "I Really Like Him" and the gritty "Aldonza" has a lively musical vocabulary. As Cervantes/Quixote, Paul Schoeffler gives the dreamer a crisp, staccato delivery that takes a bit to get used to, but his baritone has a gleaming tint that cuts right into the heart of his showstopping power ballad. He makes us see the batty old knight of the woeful countenance without resorting to that character's patented goatee and great swathe of a mustache. Trusty sidekick Sancho Panza, perhaps the most famous sidekick in literature, is a worthy Borscht-belter under Josh Lamon's wily interpretation, turning him into Nathan Lane-lite, but that's about the only way to play this endearing second banana. As the whore Aldonza, whom Quixote fantasizes as chaste and pure, Michelle DeJean is appropriately slutty and hard-shelled until she cracks under Quixote's persistently chivalrous gaze. This is the fourth time TUTS has presented this classic, and its message of hope among the hopeless exudes freshness along with inspiration. Just to hear that oversung old chestnut, "The Quest," in its rightful place in the show where it originated, is chilling all over again. Through March 10. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. 713-558-8887. — DLG

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