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"The Impossible Dream," the signature song from "Man of La Mancha," is so pervasive in the popular culture of the past half-century that you might be inclined to write off Utah Opera's production of the Broadway favorite, which opened Saturday, as a bit of a lightweight. Don't.
Producing this musical represents a spot outside the usual opera box for the company, but stage director Paul Curran and his team accord the show the same level of artistic respect as a work by Verdi or Britten. This isn't some motivational poster about following your dreams. There are powerful points being made here about the power of art, the power of community, the meaning of courage and more, and Curran's staging puts them across in potent ways. Saturday's crowd was palpably moved at several points in the performance.
The cast offers the same level of commitment. Some of the singers have worked primarily in opera, some have worked primarily in musical theater, and the different styles mesh beautifully making a strong case for the artistic team's belief that distinctions between the genres are artificial at best.
"Man of La Mancha" is inspired by Miguel de Cervantes' immortal novel "Don Quixote de La Mancha," with a framing story in which the author himself recruits his fellow prisoners to act out the tale while they await questioning by the Spanish Inquisition. Curran's vision of the show, brought masterfully to life by Court Watson's elegantly utilitarian set and costume design, places that prison in the present day. (The fact that there's no curtain underscores the concept.) The ensemble takes the stage in modern dress and remains onstage for the entire running time, picking up simple props or costume pieces as their roles in the play-within-the-play require. Yancey J. Quick's wig and makeup designs are particularly ingenious.
David Pittsinger is utterly commanding in the title role. His baritone voice is smooth, rich and powerful; equally striking is the way you can see his Quixote aging right before your eyes in the final scenes. The other two leads, Keith Jameson as Sancho Panza and Audrey Babcock as Aldonza/Dulcinea, bring the same level of charisma to their performances, revealing the characters as much through their physical acting as through their expressive vocals.
Standouts in the strong ensemble include Brannon Killgo as the Governor, who is pulled into Cervantes' story just as the audience is; Kevin Nakatani, whose Carrasco is as magnetic as he is sinister; and Christian Sanders, a most appealing Padre. This staging also requires a lot more dancing than usual from the ensemble, and the performers pull it off in delightful fashion. Hal France conducts members of the Utah Symphony in a vivid performance of the spare but colorful score.
Living the dream
Utah Opera presents "Man of La Mancha," with music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and book by Dale Wasserman. Singing and spoken dialogue are in English.
When • Reviewed Saturday, Jan. 21; continues Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Jan. 23, 25 and 27, at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Jan. 29
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Running time • About 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
In a nutshell • In a Spanish prison, Miguel de Cervantes enlists his fellow inmates in enacting the story of his most famous creation: Don Quixote de La Mancha.
Tickets • $21-$110; utahopera.org
Learn more • Lectures by principal coach Carol Anderson an hour before curtain and Q&A led by artistic director Christopher McBeth after each performance, all in the Capitol Room on the theater's west side; background materials (with musical excerpts) at utahopera.org/onlinelearning