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Stage Review

Play-in-a-play gives new tilt to Quixote tale

Caroline deLima holds Christopher Chew in the Lyric Stage's production of 'Man of La Mancha.' At rear (from left) are Robert Saoud and Kenneth Harmon. Caroline deLima holds Christopher Chew in the Lyric Stage's production of "Man of La Mancha." At rear (from left) are Robert Saoud and Kenneth Harmon. (Lyric Stage Company)

Everything you need to know about the Lyric Stage Company's thrilling production of "Man of La Mancha" is in Janie E. Howland's evocative set. Her simple prison common room is filled with subtle touches: books, gargoyles, and other odd little objects are painted into the floor and backdrop and seem to appear just at the moment when the added touch is needed.

Spiro Veloudos, who's celebrating his 10th season as producing artistic director at the Lyric, takes the same low-key approach to his direction of this familiar show, letting scenes shift almost without our noticing to give the musical an effortless flow.

Playwright Dale Wasserman's take on Miguel de Cervantes's epic novel "Don Quixote" brings the writer and the character together in a moving play-within-a-play. Imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition for his work as a tax collector, Cervantes is put on trial by his fellow inmates and acts out his defense, drawing his fellow prisoners into his tale. "Man of La Mancha" tackles big themes - the impossible dream of the show's most memorable song, for example - but it is to Veloudos's credit that the actors underplay their roles, staying so riveted within their particular dramatic moments that the show's ideas never descend into cliche.

As the Knight of the Woeful Countenance and his creator, Christopher Chew brings a commanding voice and presence that demand attention and respect, even when he's tilting at windmills or requesting a lowly innkeeper to dub him knight. He nails that famous high note in "The Impossible Dream" as if it were nothing, and he makes "Dulcinea" both seductive and heart-wrenching. It's no surprise the hardened Aldonza (a terrific Caroline deLima) falls for his romantic vision of her. DeLima's transformation from scowling scullery maid to a woman with self-respect is luminous, which makes her no-holds-barred performance of "Aldonza" after her abduction even more stunning.

Don Quixote's faithful servant Sancho Panza is a tricky part to play, but Veloudos's decision to go for quiet precision serves Robert Saoud well. Although the role is often played as an obsequious sidekick, Saoud delivers a man who is interesting in his own right, so for once, "I Really Like Him" sounds sincere, not smarmy.

"Man of La Mancha" combines comedy and tragedy, and Veloudos finds just the right balance between the two. The comic scenes, primarily because of Saoud's timing and delivery, are wonderful fun, while the serious moments never become ponderous.

The ensemble offers ample support for the principals, with Curt Denham providing some beautiful Spanish guitar music to set the scene at the top of the show, Kenneth Harmon offering an angelic Padre, and Timothy John Smith playing a dangerous muleteer. Music director Jonathan Goldberg has also found enormous power in the voices of singers we thought we knew, resulting in breathtaking harmonies.

At the end of "Man of La Mancha," when each prisoner picks up a bit of costume or prop as they watch Cervantes and Panza led away to face the Inquisition, it's impossible not to feel the emotional connection and be moved by the power of this theatrical experience. Veloudos's production offers a fitting tribute to the role of the theater and sets a high standard for the season to come.

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Man of La Mancha

Musical with book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, music by Mitch Leigh.

Directed by: Spiro Veloudos. Musical direction, Jonathan Goldberg. Choreography by Ilyse Robbins. Sets, Janie E. Howland. Costumes, Rafael Jaen. Lights, Scott Clyve.

At: Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through Oct. 13. Tickets: $28-$54. 617-585-5678,