Dream On

Playing the character of Holling Vincoeur on Northern Exposure, John Cullum is one terrific in-joke. Cullum, a dashing leading man of Broadway, a two-time Tony Award-winning actor of Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century, as a rugged outdoorsman in Alaska! That the charm he showed on stage still shines through on the tube makes his role even more fun.

Kicking off a national Theatre Under the Stars tour that returns him to his roots, Cullum is the chivalrous knight errant, Don Quixote, in Man of La Mancha. Windmill battles, romantic misadventures and Dale Wasserman's ennobled book and Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's lovely score, all revolving around a suave actor with the plushest of baritones: musical theater heaven, right?

Not quite. Though Cullum has abundant stage presence, he doesn't really fulfill his character's touching hope: "to add some measure of grace to the world." Why not? Largely because of the affectation in his voice, which I suppose is assumed to make Quixote appear dazed and confused. An indeterminate rasp that he won't let go of, not even in song, it ruins the poignancy of "Dulcinea," Quixote's delicate ballad, and makes "The Impossible Dream" just that: an impossible dream. It denies Quixote his paradoxical strength: vulnerability. Cullum doesn't especially hurt the character, he just doesn't help him.

That's more than can be said of Ann Crumb as the kitchen strumpet Aldonza, whom Quixote imagines to be his fair lady Dulcinea. Setting the wrong, sullen tone in "It's All the Same," she's neither as incendiary nor, later, as impassioned as she should be. Crumb plays her as a "broad," when what she is is a damsel.

While the show isn't a must-see, there are some reasons to check it out. Albert Marre, who directed the Tony Award-winning original 30 years ago, is back at the helm, and he's both mindful and reinvigorating, making "I'm Only Thinking of Him" into a battle-of-the-bands type confessional, Quixote's sword into a silver Twizzler and confrontations into arresting moments of psychological impressionism. Though the combat is awkward, the finale is transcendent -- as is Howard Bay's raked stage of vast, dark spaces and an ominous drawbridge trap door, which he originally devised for Marre's 1992 Broadway revival of La Mancha, which starred Raul Julia and Sheena Easton. Darryl Ferrer delightfully reprises his role as Quixote's faithful companion Sancho Panza from that production. The entire supporting cast does good work. It's only the lead players to whom Quixote's proclamation applies: "Facts are the enemy of truth."

-- Peter Szatmary

Man of La Mancha plays through May 21 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, 888-7849 or 800-766-6048.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Szatmary